We recently spoke with Kate Joyce, Executive Director of the Family Help Center about the stigma surrounding mental health.
Q: Why did Family Help Center (FHC) become a member of the Anti-Stigma Coalition?
Historically, the work of community coalitions has been one of the best ways to move the needle and create systemic societal change. Coalitions influence public policy, help shape legislation and legislative reforms, and provide ‘think tanks.’ They serve as powerful forums for incredible networking opportunities for action-oriented people. In essence, community coalitions are one of the best examples of collective impact and can lead to progressive and profound change.
The Anti-Stigma Coalition reflects all the organizational values we embrace at the FHC and provides an opportunity for staff and clients to work with others on macro level advocacy issues so that ultimately – the goal of eliminating stigma can be accomplished. Due to the pandemic, I believe we are now on the cusp of a potent mental health awareness reckoning and the next phase of change and reform in our mental health system. New discussions are taking place about on-line accessibility to services, self care for essential workers and open talk about the psychological impact the last 16 months (characterized by COVID-19) had on the family system. Community coalitions are needed now more than ever.
We are fortunate to have the Anti-Stigma Coalition already in place and primed to respond to this ‘new wave’ of mental health awareness and needs. Our agency is eager to help contribute and work in unison to help move that needle further.
Q: How are people with mental health challenges impacted by stigma?
This is a long list nor is it a good list. If we are willing to be open and honest about this question and reflect on the past 200 years, I would summarize my response by saying that people with mental health concerns were shunned and made to feel like social outcasts. We have periods within our society where people were warehoused and hidden out of sight. Persons with mental health concerns were disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. We have witnessed persons running for political office who had their personal medical history leaked to the media forced to withdraw due to public backlash. Stigma is connected to employment opportunities lost, children being placed in out-of-home care and, ultimately, people in need being afraid to seek out services for fear of negative consequences within our society. Tragically, stigma is manifested in high rates of addiction and suicide.
Again, the list of examples is long and probably endless. Stigma is a human phenomenon created by people – and against people – and we are entering a time in our society where we can abolish it. We are at a crossroads in time where the next generation can live free from stigma and access a system of care without any fear of being labeled, branded, or shunned. Let’s hold tight to that vision – it is without doubt something we can achieve.
Q: Do you see progress in reducing stigma in your organization and in the community?
Thank you for asking this question – it is something we need to be asking ourselves all the time.
On an agency level, because we employ mental health professionals and are part of the continuum of mental health services in the community, we all embrace the target of eliminating stigma. We are very purposeful about reminding one another that self-care for essential workers —- is essential and that as service providers we are not immune from mental health challenges. For the past two years, we have offered a series of trainings geared towards mindfulness and stress reduction as part of our wellness initiative and connected employees with a Life Coach. Essential workers not only shoulder difficult caseloads but are often the person within their family system that are ‘in charge’ of handling interfamilial crisis and loss so we preach that personal replenishment and nurturing our mental health needs is essential.
In terms of the larger question – have I seen progress in reducing stigma in the community – in response to this question I did a ‘deep dive’ retro reflective look back both as a person and as a practicing social worker for several decades. The answer was a very big YES! I can cite countless examples both personally and professionally, although I remain forever aware that people in our society were deprived of their basic human freedoms due to stigma.
On a personal level, as the first person in my family to pursue a career in the mental health field, I recall numerous and insightful conversations I had with elder family members about what their experience was like growing up in the 1930s, 40’s, 50’s and so on and how mental health challenges were handled by their parents and the community. The response I heard repeatedly is that ‘IT’ (meaning a mental health issue) was not talked about and for the most part contact with the family member was very limited. They were kept hidden or ‘sent away’ or were written off as an alcoholic and someone to avoid. During such conversations, I couldn’t help but conclude that the person in the ‘IT’ category seemed to die at a younger age.
The secondary theme I gleaned from these retro reflections is that it certainly wasn’t acceptable to seek help. Seeking help was considered synonymous with being ‘weak,’ ‘sick,’ ‘crazy’ – all labels to be avoided because ultimately it was believed that it would be embarrassing or shameful to the family name or culture.
Fast forward to the present as I compare and contrast my parents’ experience versus my own experiences as a parent. I was able to raise my children, who are now all adults, in a home characterized by open talk and discussion about mental health and how that is a significant component of a persons’ being. It is just as significant as their physical health and the two components are entwined. I recall an experience I had one evening as I was driving one of my children and some friends home from a sporting event. Unbridled emotions were zig-zagging all over the SUV. They took their role as student athletes very seriously and sports at that age seemed to be their number one priority with so much much of it tied to their personal identity, self worth, self confidence and psyche. This game with a rival was particularly challenging and gruelling. It had gone into triple overtime only for their team to be defeated. Heartbreak and adrenalin prevailed. Afterwards conflict broke out between the teams further exacerbating the high intensity of the loss. The kids often emerged with many bumps, bruises and swollen body parts due to the nature of the sport. When I was conversing with them about the game (I was debriefing them – just couldn’t miss that opportunity!) I did a physical health check in with my passengers and after that inventory I said, and how is your mental health? As a parent I always made that question part of our everyday discussion so that I could break the societal stigma my parents’ generation had to endure. They were all able to answer immediately in terms of how their body felt physically but seemed a bit stymied by the mental health check in. One passenger said, gee I have never been asked that question…’ Productive conversation with a group of gregarious adolescents ensued. And therein lies the change.
I look forward to the next wave of change and stigma reduction in our field. My hope is that by the end of this decade we are able to see great progress made (a) fully embracing all aspects of trauma – especially race-based traumatic trauma (RBTS), (b) creating new avenues for tele-mental health to increase accessibility, (c) fully embracing post partum depression, (d) standardizing and embedding mental health staff within law enforcement. This was a practice we began many years ago in the domestic violence field with great success and is now being piloted across the nation in terms of 9-1-1 calls that involve a mental health component. Therein lies the change as well.