Many mental illnesses develop in young adulthood, when social stigma and discrimination against people with these disorders are at their very worst. This can significantly impact a young person’s ability to seek treatment and guidance, ultimately impacting their desire to seek higher education and rewarding careers.
Early intervention and community support can make a positive impact toward healing and recovery, but we’ve not seen the kind of social tide necessary to turn public perception to the degree that we have seen it with, for example, bullying.
On Tuesday, February 19, the Rosalyn and Jimmy Carter Center will host an online discussion called “Beyond Stigma: Bringing the Conversation About Mental Illness Forward.” The 7pm EST panel will be moderated by Carter Center stigma expert Rebecca Palpant Shimkets (above) and will include Dr. Mark McLeod, director of Emory University Counseling Services; Billy Howard, 2011-2012 Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism and Step Inside My Head creator; Alison Malmon, Active Minds founder and CEO; and Kimberly Minor, mental health advocate and president of Active Minds at Georgia Perimeter College.
I had an opportunity to speak with Rebecca Shimkets about this panel, and about the growing awareness of mental health issues in America.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today about mental health in America. It seems to be very topical, especially with the Sandy Hook shootings and, of interest to people in the tech arena, the recent suicide of Aaron Swartz. Do you get the impression that mental health is becoming a more urgent issue today?
I am very happy to be here. It still surprises me how many journalists are really interested in this issue, how many people apply with proposals to join our center and learn how to discuss mental health issues in the media. And yes it is topical, but the urgency is often associated with acts of violence, which can be a bit misleading.
The reality is that mental illness is common. One in four people will have a diagnosable mental health condition this year but won’t get treatment, mostly because they fear the stigma. For some reason, we have a hard time getting this story out there. I think it may have something to do with the media landscape and perhaps choices made by editors.
Do you think there are more people with mental health problems today, and is that associated for example with the economy, with the stress of unemployment, losing homes and healthcare?
It’s so hard to know because we usually don’t have the data, I think we are much more knowledgeable now than we used to be, and of course we have a lot more ways of finding more cases today. People are pretty informed about things like depression and panic disorder so they tend to seek treatment for that. And we’re generally very concerned about mental health in our everyday environment, we do know for example that stress exacerbates symptoms and in the 24’7 world that we live in, people are always stressed. Financial problems, unemployment, all of that can have an effect. Dr. Kesslet of Harvard is doing a lot of epidemiological work on causes.
And how is the Carter Center working on this?
We feel we have to take a longer view, we have to look at ‘what is my role in a mental health program that can be applied here or overseas, is it work related or does it touch society broadly.
We take a unique approach to working on stigma. Instead of supporting a national campaign or something like that, we – and Mrs. Rosalyn Carter started this when she sat down with her mental health task force almost 20 years ago to talk about this – we really have to do something about the way the public views mental illness, through better informing the sources that people get their information from.
So we started a program of working with journalists.
Now, the way in which mental illnesses were reported 20 years ago, the vast amount of coverage was associated with violence and sensation and didn’t tell the whole story about mental health.
So we decided to start a mental health journalism fellowship program. Today it involves working with 10 journalists in a year-long fellowship to study a major topic, and complete a study about mental health. This year we have six Americans, two Romanians and two Columbians in the program. Ultimately, we find that these journalists continue to work with us for five to seven years after their study period.
The hope is that over time, we are building a cadre of journalists across the world who are interested in the issues and understand them. So far we have enrolled about 136 journalists in the fellowship, and just last year over 1,400 mental health pieces were produced by Rosalyn Carter fellows. So we feel the program is working.
Are you shaping your program to better anticipate the needs of online journalists?
We’re right now in the process of building an online community for mental health reporting where journalists from around the world can find a home, share contacts and resources, and connect with other journalists in the field. The community was piloted by Rosalyn Carter fellows. We anticipate opening that up in the next 6 to 9 months.
Our fellows also help to form advisory boards and workgroups related to stigma in mental health.
The people in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the tech world were shocked last Friday when Aaron Swartz, a brilliant young man just 26 years old, took his own life apparently because he was depressed by the prospect of an expensive, year-long criminal trial that could have put him behind bars for up to 30 years. Aside from the legal issues involved, how could this have been prevented?
We feel it is really important for people to understand the link between depression and suicide. Depression is treatable and suicide can be prevented.
People need to know how prevalent suicide really is. Almost as many people will die from suicide this year as by all other violent intentional deaths combined, including wars and homicide.
But if you know the symptoms and you are close to someone who is depressed and suicidal, you can help prevent it.
I’m sure you are looking forward to the February panel, can you tell me more about what to expect at that event?
Well, it’s not just one-off event. This is one of four similar conversations that we are hosting at the Rosalyn Carter Center every year, and the entire focus of this event is on stigma reduction in young adults and on college campuses.
We will be talking with former Rosalyn Carter Fellow Billy Howard, who is a photographer and very good at telling stories through videos and photographs. He has created a website called stepinsidemyhead.com, which partners with an organization called Active Minds to outreach to students on college campuses. Together, they are using the power of the personal story to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.
Billy is going to be interviewing on stage one of the students he profiled on the website, so that will be very interesting.
We’ll also have the executive director of the national ActiveMinds organization, and a psychologist on the campus of Emory University. We’re really excited about this topic. It will be a live webcast, so we’re going to encourage viewers to engage on social media to learn more during this 90-minute event.
You mentioned that many people see the onset of mental illness in early adulthood and that includes high school and even the middle school years. Kids who exhibit symptoms so early often have a hard time making good grades, which could make it even more difficult to even get to college. How are you helping at that level?
One of our successes in last couple of decades has been accommodating students with challenges at every grade level. More than ever before we are seeing students that may have never tried to go to college, applying to go and getting support from counselors and mental health professionals to succeed.
More often, the issue is that these kids are now leaving home, they are going into a new community with different stresses and not much support. The Affordable Care Act has helped in some respects because parents can now keep their kids on their insurance policies while they are in college, up to age 26, but for many others there is a serious question around how are they going to get care, how are they going to get access to the services they need, and that can be compounded by the additional peer pressure to perform, which can lead to avoidance of the mental health issue.
Our efforts focus around, once they get there, what are all of those challenges that they are having to deal with on their own, and how can we help them?
Rebecca, thank you very much for your time, this has been a great interview, and I hope your event is a great success!
Thank you! And I hope to see you there.
Photo: Rebecca Palpant Shimkets/The Carter Center