Can We Talk About Mental Illness?

Can we talk about mental illness?  We certainly don’t.  It’s really odd that in a time when we know so much more about the brain and biochemistry mental illness remains surrounded by misperception, shame, blame, stigma, and just plain ignorance.  All of that makes it mostly an unspoken, and too often poorly addressed, issue even though its prevalence in the society is so high.   (According to a new publication from the US government about 20% of Americans over 18 will experience a mental health problem this year.)

In the face of this, silence is not a good situation.  It means too many people struggle in isolation, they don’t get support or the right kind of information, they go to the wrong kind of “help”(drugs, alcohol.)  It also means that too many people remain ignorant about mental illness, and so apt to hurt rather than help, even without knowing it.  I just heard a federal official cite a recent study that says that 68% of Americans are unwilling to have a person with depression in their family.  If you’re in one of those families would you “come out” about being seriously depressed?

It’s when a very sick person shoots and kills other people that mental illness gets the limelight.  There’s a risk that the attention will reinforce all the wrong stereotypes.  In truth a very small percentage of mentally ill people are violent.  But it’s also true that attention is an opportunity to open this desperately needed conversation.  That’s what a lot of people are trying to do right now.

A newly launched National Dialogue on Mental Health will bring good messaging in media and on the internet and bring influential new allies for public education (NFL players, for instance).  But the dialogue’s going to be face to face, too, and among regular Americans.  Go to www.creatingcommunitysolutions.org and you can see on the map all the places – across the country - where community conversations are getting organized.   (It’s also virtual – there are on-line forums, too at www.theciviccommons.org/mentalhealth.)

This initiative offers a lot of choices.  Some Mayors are holding big events (picture 400 people in groups of ten all talking at the same time.)  Mostly conversations are smaller.   Some will be in libraries.  Collaborations are happening among all kinds of partners – YWCAs, libraries, mental health agencies, advocacy groups, United Ways, local governments. See for yourself on the CCS site.

One more choice people have is to do it themselves.  (Maybe no one’s holding a community conversation where they live.  Maybe they’d rather do small and private, at least to start.)  Living Room Conversations offer a method. A Living Room Conversation is initiated by co-host friends who hold different views on an issue.  (Here it may not necessarily be different views – it might be different vantage points in terms of experience, age, culture, etc.)  Each co-host invites two friends to join a structured conversation in a living room or other comfortable private space. All participants agree to six common sense ground rules that create a safe environment for people to share their thoughts.  Participants learn about each other and talk together, following a simple to follow format. See www.lrsandbox.com.

But isn’t there a basic problem here?  Isn’t mental health something only experts can competently discuss?   Or maybe only those who’ve lived this?   No.  There’s a big body of work that’s shown how diverse groups of people, including ordinary citizens, can, given the right tools and the right structure, pool their differing experience and perspectives, look at complex issues, and come to understandings deeper than where they started.  They can produce good ideas. (If you want to know more go to www.ncdd.org.)

One of the excellent tools available here is an Information Brief created by The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, downloadable on the CCS website, meant to give people a common base of knowledge. 

What does mental health mean to me? What does it mean to our community?

What are our challenges?  What factors are important?

How do we best support mental health, especially of young people?

Are there steps we want to take in our community?

These are the questions that people will be talking about in conversations across the country in the coming months.   It’s hard to imagine that this is radical for such conversations to happen - openly, widely, and among a lot of people.  But it is.  And now there is a place for everyone to get in.