On June 3, the President and Vice President hosted a National Conference on Mental Health in Washington. While millions of Americans and thousands of Mississippians struggle with mental health problems, those who need help are many times afraid to seek it because of the shame and secrecy unfortunately associated with mental illness. The conference brought together people from access the country, including mental health advocates, educators, health care providers, faith leaders, and individuals who have struggled with mental health problems, to discuss how we can all work together to reduce stigma, and help people struggling with mental health problems recognize the importance of reaching out for assistance.
Mental health problems are surprisingly common. In fact, they affect most families at some point. Studies also show that most people with mental illnesses get better and many recover completely. Recovery not only benefits the individual, it benefits the entire community. One major barrier to recovery, however, is stigma – the aura of shame and blame that surrounds mental health problems. This fear of mental health problems is a major problem in itself. Stigma gets in the way of proper treatment and recovery. There are ways, however, to counter stigma and our goal is to have the entire state of Mississippi join our efforts to combat stigma. Share the facts about mental health problems and about people with these problems. Speak up if you hear or read something that isn’t true. Treat people with mental health needs with respect and dignity, as you would anybody else. Don’t label people with mental health problems by using terms like “crazy.” Support people with mental health problems by helping to develop community resources. Teach children about mental health. Help them see that these problems are like any other illness and can be treated. These are just a few things you can do to help break down the walls of stigma.
According to SAMHSA the prevalence of serious mental health conditions in the 18-25 years of age group is almost double that of the general population, yet young people have the lowest rate of help-seeking behaviors. This group has a high potential to minimize future disability if social acceptance is broadened and they receive the right support and services early on. This is one of the reasons the Mississippi Department of Mental Health (DMH) launched a public awareness campaign, Think Again, which targets young adults in 2009. The opportunity for recovery is more likely in a society of acceptance, and this initiative is meant to inspire young people to serve as the mental health vanguard, motivating a societal change toward acceptance and decreasing the negative attitudes that surround mental illness.
We must remember that behavioral health is an essential part of overall health. Most people don’t think twice about seeking treatment for diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure or other health conditions. As a nation and a state, we need to change the way we look at mental illness in order to dispel the stigma. This also includes the way we look at recovery. Last year, DMH launched an awareness campaign focusing on the definition and components of recovery. Recovery is a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential. Recovery is unique to each individual and can truly only be defined by the individual themselves. What might be recovery for one person may be only part of the process for another. Supports and services help people with mental illness and substance abuse issues in their recovery journeys.
We all possess the fundamental and inherent value to be accepted and treated with respect and worth. We want individuals to restore, rebuild and reclaim control of their lives by increasing their resilience and focusing on their strengths. We need to remind our fellow citizens that people should seek treatment for substance abuse and mental health with the same urgency as they would any other health condition. We need to continue to have conversation on mental health in order to increase understanding and awareness for our nation and the state of Mississippi.
Edwin C. LeGrand III
Mississippi Department of Mental Health