By Ben F. Miller, PsyD
IMPROVING MENTAL HEALTH ONE PERSON AT A TIME
Your health is one of the most intimate things you will ever possess. It remains the foundation of our achievement. How can we unlock our potential if our health is not optimal? How can we succeed if our health works against us in our pursuit of the things we desire most? When it comes to our health, we have often thought of it as the absence or presence of a disease or problem. However, health is so much more than that. In some cases we may limit which of our stories we tell, or which of our diagnoses we share—we may conceal the way we feel, or even not share something as simple as the fact that we have no insurance coverage, because we are ashamed.
This must stop.
There is no more egregious example of how little we share about our health than with our mental health. We are hesitant, worried that others may think less of us, or that others will change the way they treat us. Worst of all, we are afraid someone will use what we share about ourselves as leverage by which they can exert power over us--to discriminate against us, to limit the control we have over our own lives, and to limit our human potential.
This is stigma.
Stigma keeps us from sharing, from feeling comfortable about our story; our health. Mental health is stigmatized. Think about this for a second:
Scenario one: You are diagnosed with high blood pressure. While a bit bummed, you go home and share this with your friends and family. After all, you need support and help knowing what to do next.
Scenario two: You are diagnosed with anxiety. You are unsure as to how to respond or even act. You knew that you were worried about some things here and there, but never really got that it was impacting you in such a way. You go home and don’t share. You hold it in, and hope that it will just go away. You are concerned that people will treat you differently if they know.
Add any medical diagnosis to scenario one or any mental health diagnosis to scenario two and the same song remains—we are afraid to talk about one of the most significant pieces of our health: our mental health. Ironically, while it’s that fear that keeps us from sharing, we know from evidence that it’s by sharing that we can begin the process of getting better.
In our journey to #BeWell, we must also #BeHeard.
As a national health foundation committed to being a leader in the intersection of mental health and wellness, Well Being Trust is ready to see an end to stigma. We are ready and willing to invest in ideas that allow us to pursue wellness by being there for ourselves and for others. We are willing to prioritize in areas that can immediately begin to impact on health.
For a moment let’s consider what is at stake, and just how high a cost we pay for our silence. Every year 43.7 million adults suffer from mental health issues, and many of them won’t receive the treatment they need. And while it is not the only factor, stigma plays such an insidious role in preventing us from seeking care.
Because ours is such a reticent culture when it comes to mental health, so many young people think they suffer alone. And why wouldn’t they? From their point of view, so few seem to be sharing similar experiences. Everyone else seems to treat mental health issues as unutterable, taboo feelings not to be discussed in the open. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death in adolescents, and the second leading cause of death in college age people. And while there are often warning signs we should all be cognizant of, many people who die by suicide show no indication of what they are feeling at all.
It’s unacceptable that so many young people are dying because they see no other possibility.
It’s unacceptable that a young man or woman could suffer so much agony and feel as if he or she can’t even speak about it.
Contrary to common myth, screening young people for suicidal ideation does not increase their thoughts of suicidal ideation—asking about suicide doesn’t plant the idea in anyone’s head. The villain is always the most terrifying when he’s lurking in the dark, but if we just say something, if we just ask, if we listen to each other, then we can shine a light on mental illness, and begin our journey to well being.
The first step is one we hope you will take with us: share your story, and listen to someone else’s story. A first step in being well, is being heard.
Stigma survives by the generosity of our silence, and so we have to be loud, and we have to be brave for ourselves, and for each other. One way to join us in this conversation is to use the hashtag #BeHeard. Use it in every social media platform you can. Tell us your story. Listens to others’ stories. When we begin sharing our experiences around mental health in such massively public forums as social media, we begin to normalize the conversation and create a culture of openness. Soon sharing won’t just be online; we will want to share our stories with our families, friends, in coffee shops, on street corners, and in the hallways of our state houses and our Congress. Be loud and let your voice roar.
While it may not always be your story, it still has power. There are two ways to be heard:
1. By telling your story to friends, to family, and to your community; and,
2. By joining with others and their voices to advocate for change.
When we harness the power of all our stories, all our voices, the result is so much larger than the sum of its individual components. When they ring out together, our voices are a force for real, far-reaching cultural change.
The conversation may begin with Ryan Seacrest; it may begin with your mom in the car on the way to school, or with a co-worker in the break room. It doesn't matter—the most important thing is that we talk it out, and that we feel we have someone who is there for us listening.
Let’s not be content to wait for change to happen that can benefit our health and wellness—let’s be proactive, join together with others, and let our voice be heard. As we said earlier, the first step is one we hope you will take with us: share your story, and listen to someone else’s story. Let’s collectively let our first step in being well, to be there for someone, to share our story, and to be heard.