By, Razia F. Kosi, LCSW-C
I breathed a sigh of relief as I stood with the press at the back of the East Room in the White House. After a rainy, traffic-heavy drive and a 30-minute red line metro delay that caused me to jump out at Union Station and hail a cab after a three-block sprint in three-inch heels, I made it to the White House Conference on Mental Health almost an hour late.
As fate would have it, I arrived right on time to hear President Obama’s opening remarks convening the conference. Speaking to a room of 150 invited health care experts, psychologists, faith leaders, advocates for veterans, and administration officials, he stated that the point of the conference was not “to start the dialogue on mental health, since many of [us] have been doing this for years, we’re here to bring it to a national level.” With an estimated 45 million Americans living with a mental illness, President Obama humanized this statistic by reminding us: “We all know somebody—a family member, a friend, a neighbor—who has struggled or will struggle with mental health issues at some point in their lives.”
These simple words echo the message that we all have mental health, and, given the spectrum of social, emotional, and genetic factors, we may all fall to a state of instability in coping with our mental health. Yet stigma still surrounds the discussion and investigation of the inner workings of our brains. The President stated this eloquently: “The brain is a body part too; we just know less about it. And there should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love. We’ve got to get rid of that embarrassment; we’ve got to get rid of that stigma.”
Stigma was another key issue raised at this conference. Actor Glenn Close spoke of “a family affair” with mental illness. Her sister, Jessie, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 51, and Jessie’s son, Calen, was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at age 19. In 2009, Close’s family battles led her to help start a non-profit called Bring Change 2 Mind, which produces public service announcements to fight the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness. Close candidly spoke about her sister’s fear of her children not having friends because of other parents who might refuse to let their children play in a home in which a parent has a mental illness.
A sobering statistic shared by President Obama is the fact that our country loses 22 veterans a day to suicide. I thought about this statistic and the weight of the silent struggle of our veterans: to have survived the atrocities of war, only to return home and then succumb to the immense pain and leave the world by their own hand. The suicides of veterans are tragedies on multiple levels. The Office of Veteran Affairs, led by Secretary Eric Shineski, met their goal of hiring 1,600 new mental health professions. In addition, they are partnering with 24 communities and 9 states to provide the much-needed services of mental professionals to returning veterans.
Shamefully, despite being a leader in a nonprofit organization serving the South Asian community, I must admit that we do not even know the number of veterans who are of South Asian background to whom we might be able to offer services. As a South Asian therapist and mental health advocate, I need to question whether I have confronted my own biases of treating veterans who have returned from combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. As an individual and a leader of a service organization, I am moved by the statistic that 22 veterans a day chose to commit suicide. My next step is take action.
In the afternoon, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan facilitated a diverse panel of experts (ranging from social media, a Dean from Georgetown University, the Public Affairs Director from MTV, and a veteran/author) who all shared dynamic and innovative perspectives on how to provide treatment for and end stigma about mental health issues.
Dave DeLuca, the Head of Campaigns for dosomething.org, shared the staggering fact that the average number of texts for young people is 4,000 per month! This means texting is the most effective medium to communicate with young people. At dosomething.org, they created a text crisis line, similar to a hotline, with trained mental health counselors. It reaches over one million teens per month. The crisis line is partnered with multiple local organizations that immediately connect teens with local resources. The amount of data that is collected from this mechanism is astounding; dosomething.org has discovered when the texts come in most frequently, when incidents of bullying are the highest, and when teens are most vulnerable. The information can be disaggregated and trends can be identified and then used for appropriate treatment services.
Other methods of lessening the stigma of mental health, specifically in young people, are used by the MTV campaign, Love is Louder: authentic storytelling and using celebrities to spread the message. This signifies a paradigm shift in the way people view matters that were formerly labeled as problems. Now the focus is on looking for solutions, and using dynamic people and authentic stories to do so. So celebrity advocates (or using a newly coined term, “celebvocates”) are now used to carry mental health messages.
What do you think got more comments and buzz as I was updating my Facebook page while at the mental health conference: the pic of actor Bradley Cooper or President Biden? (I took President Obama out of the equation because, let’s face it, for many of us, he’s still in the rock star status). Yes, it was actor Bradley Cooper that my friends wanted to know about. (Is he really that cute in real life? The answer is an unabashed YES). No, I didn’t actually meet him, but I did end up sitting one row behind and four people over from him (not that I was counting).
Why was Bradley there anyways? Well, as he stated, “it was as if a veil had been lifted” after he secured a role as a man with bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook. Since then, Cooper says, “I want to be part of the solution. And the way to do that is to talk about it, to bring awareness.” Clearly, not all of us can have access to celebvocates, but we can help by sharing authentic stories, music, and other impacting mediums that people can relate to, which can then be used to help end the stigma about mental health. The media also wants to work with community-based organizations and mental health experts to gain the content knowledge to create messages. This fact sheet from the conference shows all the national partners, nonprofits, and media and broadcast groups working on this national dialogue on mental health.
Vice President Biden brought this groundbreaking conference to a close by sharing both personal stories and solution-focused ideas. He talked about his longtime friend and college roommate, Don, and Don’s fear about his son’s struggle with mental illness. As Don confided in the Vice President, “I feel like Johnny (pseudonym) is on the end of a string. He is on the end of a string and he is out there in space and I am afraid. Joe, I am afraid. I am afraid if I tug it too hard the string will break and I will lose him forever.”
Moved by his friend’s family’s struggle, Vice President Biden strongly pleaded, “Let’s use this moment to send a message to tens of millions of Americans, especially the young people and the parents of young people all over this country. There is nothing, nothing to be ashamed of if you are struggling with mental issues or if your child is or your spouse or your friend. It’s okay. It’s okay to talk about it. It’s okay to ask for help. It is okay to acknowledge that it is frightening.”
In a message to the mental health providers, advocates, and medical professionals in the room, the Vice President shared a message that he believed his mother would say to us, “You are doing God’s work.”