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Thomson Reuters

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Reaching the Mental Health Tipping Point

12 June 2018

By Dr Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D. (Founder and President, Give an Hour)

“If only we could talk about and deal with our mental health the way we do our physical health … If only we could recognize that there is no shame in seeking help for our emotional pain or despair…If only we could embrace the reality that mental illness, like physical illness, is part of the human condition.”

With the recent passing of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, Dr Barbara Van Dahlen Ph.D, Founder and President of Give an Hour, in this piece reflects on the importance of raising mental health awareness, the danger of a suicide contagion and provides the tips needed to drive cultural change. Sherah Beckley, Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

I didn’t know Kate Spade – but like many women, I loved her simple, stylish, fun and affordable fashions. When I heard about her suicide – I was shocked and saddened.

As the mother of two girls, my heart ached for her young daughter. As the Founder of the Campaign to Change Direction , a public health effort focused on changing the culture of mental health….I felt a familiar sense of distress and frustration.

If only we could talk about and deal with our mental health the way we do our physical health … If only we could recognize that there is no shame in seeking help for our emotional pain or despair…If only we could embrace the reality that mental illness, like physical illness, is part of the human condition.

There are certain realities that hold true – regardless of where we come from or what we do. Sometimes we get the flu – and sometimes we get anxious.  Some of us get cancer – and some of us develop severe depression. These conditions can and should be treated. Most mental health conditions – like physical conditions – can be managed. Ignoring either our physical or mental health can be deadly.

I didn’t know Anthony Bourdain. In fact, I had only recently become a fan. It wasn’t so much his culinary skill and expertise that drew me in – because frankly I can’t imagine eating some of the things he happily consumed – but rather it was his love of and interest in people that was so compelling. He seemed so gracious, so kind and so genuinely interested in people and their stories. His approach to exploring the differences between us was refreshing and heartwarming.

I was on a call when the email appeared from the producer of my upcoming podcast series. He assumed I had heard the news about Mr. Bourdain – and wanted to talk about a future episode addressing these tragedies. I felt sick and had to catch my breath. A few minutes later I got a text from my 22-year-old daughter with a link to the story and her pained reaction, “So sad!! What’s going on?” Indeed, everyone I spoke to throughout the day had a similar reaction – worried, unsettled and afraid.

The real danger of a suicide contagion

I decided to host a FaceBook Live segment – to share information about the very real danger of suicide contagion and to provide tips on how to support those who might be feeling especially vulnerable given the intense coverage of these celebrity deaths. And I talked about the recent CDC report – that had been released, ironically, a few days earlier.

There has been a 25% increase in the rate of suicide over the last two decades in the United States. We are currently losing 123 individuals to suicide each day. Twenty of those who take their own lives are our veterans – and suicide is on the rise among our youth. In addition, I recently learned of another group that is dying by suicide at an alarming rate. American farmers currently have the highest rate of suicide of any profession – over twice that of veterans.

What is going on? And most importantly, what can be done about it.

There is no single factor responsible for the rise in suicide – many factors are believed to be contributing. Similarly, there isn’t one single action that will turn this alarming tide, but there are several things we need to do – and one thing that we all must do.

  1. Access to treatment

We need to increase access to care for those who are suffering.There aren’t enough mental health professionals to treat everyone in need so we have to get smarter about how to leverage the mental health professionals we do have. And we have to develop strategies to reach those who don’t have the resources to pay for care.

Through Give an Hour , the non profit that I founded 13 years ago, we give free mental health care to groups in need. So far, our network of generous mental health professionals has donated over 250,000 hours of free care. We currently have nearly 7000 mental health professionals participating – but there are 500,000 in the US and I want them all. Imagine what we could do if they were each giving an hour. We are working to reach them – and if anyone wants to help, please let me know.

In addition, we are taking our model on the road because the impact of unaddressed mental health concerns is not just an American challenge.

2. Research funding

We also need to direct more funding to research. My mother suffered from schizophrenia. While we have made some modest advancements in addressing this devastating condition, the biggest breakthrough has been recognizing the importance of early intervention following an individual’s first psychotic episode. While this is an important development, we can do much better. The amount of funding that currently goes to research on mental illness is a sliver of what is spent on physical maladies. We don’t have to choose to fund one or the other … we can do both.

But there is an important contribution that we must ALL make if we want to save lives. We can all be part of changing the culture around mental health. We don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve this change – we need a willingness and a commitment.

We can all learn basic information about Five Signs that tell us when someone we love is suffering emotionally:

  • Personality Change,
  • Agitation,
  • Withdrawal,
  • Lack of Self Care and
  • Hopelessness.

We can all learn to talk to each other about our mental well-being – just as we talk about our physical well-being. Our personal journeys are inspiring and sharing them connects us to each other. It was encouraging to see CNN’s Anderson Cooper and David Axelrod share how each had been affected by a loved one’s suicide following Anthony Bourdain’s death. We need to have more of these conversations – and not just during the days following a tragedy.

Finally, we can teach our kids how to talk about their emotional experiences and we can serve as role models at our jobs and in our communities.

We can change our culture

We have seen culture change. We no longer whisper the word “cancer”, people aren’t afraid to touch people with AIDS and we don’t let friends drive drunk. We have changed behavior and we are saving lives.

We all need to recognize these basic signs – and we all need to talk more openly about our mental health. Why? Because sometimes the people who are hurting the most can’t see the signs in themselves – and they are afraid to share their stories.

Individuals who are suicidal are not thinking clearly. They are not able to be rational. Indeed, we often refer to someone who is severely depressed as being in a “black hole” or a “dark place”. This is an apt description because someone experiencing this level of despair is unable to “see” their situation accurately. They can’t make good decisions because they can’t see the options available to them. But if we reach them before they act, if they feel us wrapped around them with care and support, they may survive the impulse and be better able to accept help after the crisis passes.

Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were suffering – and neither one of them could see how to make a different decision.

We can change our culture – we can reach the tipping point. But we each have to do our part by sharing, asking, offering, teaching ….and owning our mental health and emotional well-being. If we do this, we will all soon be better able to respond to our own…. and each other’s pain.





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