With mental illnesses now the leading cause of disability in the United States, there’s an effort to make a cultural change to improve mental health education and end the stigma associated with mental illness.
“Now is the time we take this on in the world. You’re seeing these movements, initiatives and campaigns because this is really critical,” said Barbara Van Dahlen, PhD, founder and president of Give an Hour and The Campaign to Change Direction. “This is the last frontier.”
Van Dahlen was one of five panelists that spoke at Aetna about raising awareness, providing education and resources and creating a culture that regards illnesses of the brain in the same way as illnesses of the body. The panel was a partnership between Aetna Behavioral Health; Aetna’s Office of Workplace Culture, Diversity & Inclusion; and TheaterWorks in Hartford, Connecticut.
Other panelists included Hyong Un, MD, chief psychiatric officer for Aetna Behavioral Health; Betsy Schwartz, MSW, vice president of Public Education and Strategic Initiatives for The National Council for Behavioral Health; Pamela Greenberg, MPP, president and CEO of the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness; and JD Daw, an actor, who is also affiliated with the Institute of Living.
“Mental illness is an illness – a disease of the brain,” said Louise Murphy, MA, LPC, CEAP, head of Aetna Behavioral Health, who also moderated the panel discussion. “… It’s something we should and need to be talking about more.”
The panel was inspired by “Next to Normal,” a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning musical. The story features a family dealing with mental illness, as the mother has been battling bipolar disorder for 16 years.
The story provides a glimpse into how mental illness can have a profound impact on family members. Daw said audience members experience a range of emotions, describing the play as “personal” and “honest.”
In March 2017, the World Health Organization said depression is the leading cause of illness and disability across the globe. Over 300 million people were affected by depression in 2015 — a more than 18 percent increase from 2005.
About 60 million Americans struggle with a mental illness in any given year, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. Fifty-six percent of Americans diagnosed with a mental illness did not receive treatment in 2016, according to Mental Health America.
Treatment for mental illness is as effective as treatment for cardiovascular conditions, Un said, adding advances in medicine will make future treatment more personalized.
“Stigma is the primary reason people don’t seek mental health treatment,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg’s organization created the “Stamp Out Stigma” initiative, which aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and substance use disorders. The initiative places a heavy emphasis on social media, Greenberg said.
“What we’re trying to do with social media is let people know they’re not alone, there is hope and it’s not their fault for having a mental illness,” she said.
To provide the knowledge and tools necessary to help someone dealing with a mental illness and eliminate stigma, The National Council for Behavioral Health brought Mental Health First Aid to the U.S. in 2008. Since 2013, about 100,000 people across the country have been trained by a network of 2,500 certified trainers.
“We all have the best intentions and we want to help or do something … but how comfortable are we with asking someone, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’” Schwartz said. “… Mental Health First Aid can really change the conversation.”
In 2013, 30 Aetna employees became certified trainers on Mental Health First Aid. Since then, they have trained over 2,500 other employees.
The company also offers a service called “Aetna Resources for LivingSM,” which gives members access to emotional support and daily life assistance.
“Saying you need to see a therapist can be scary,” said Un, who is also the head of Aetna Resources for LivingSM.
Van Dahlen said her organization and initiatives aim to make cultural changes.
“We all know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack,” she said, “but as a society, we don’t know the signs of emotional suffering.”
Knowing what emotional suffering looks like, Van Dahlen added, can help people feel more comfortable with talking about mental illness and how to help.
A support network for caretakers
As depicted in “Next to Normal,” there are others affected by mental illness.
“Not only do people with mental illness or addiction struggle, but there are families and friends that are impacted, as well,” Murphy said.
Un emphasized the need to provide caretakers with a support network to lean on.
“Caretaking for family members is stressful for any illness; for someone with a psychiatric disorder, it’s extremely stressful,” Un said. “The caregivers of people with mental health conditions also need support.”
Schwartz added a person doesn’t need to be a clinician to help someone in need.
“Any one of us can make a difference,” Schwartz said. “Knowing how to listen and react appropriately can really make a difference.”
If you or someone you know is interested in learning more, beyond the organizations listed above, contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and Mental Health America also offers more information on how to help or talk to someone about mental illness.