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Powerful People Disclose Mental Health Issues to Break “Taboo”

Contributed by L.S. Webb, Community Engagement Manager for Walden Sierra

Earlier this month, two elected members of British Parliament, Kevan Jones and Charles Walker, spoke publicly about their personal experiences living with mental illness.  Mental health advocates, like Sue Baker of the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, praised Jones and Walker for making history in the anti-stigma effort against mental illness.  Marjorie Wallace of the mental health charity SANE was moved by the elected officials eloquence and hopes it will help others seek help.

Mr. Jones, who shared his experiences with a serious episode of depression in 1996, said he had to think carefully before making the decision to disclose.  While sharing his story with the public was difficult, Jones pointed out that a lot of men “don’t talk to people” and try to deal with problems alone.  Jones says that he does not know how, or if, his disclosure will affect how others see him, and he doesn’t care.  “If it helps other people who have suffered from depression in the past- good.”

Mr. Walker spoke compellingly of his experiences living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) for over 30 years.  Using humor and honesty, Walker talked about the ups and downs of life with OCD.  “I have to wash my hands four times.  I have to go in and out of a room for times.  My wife and children often say I resemble an extra from Riverdance as I bounce in and out of a room…on occasions it is manageable and, on occasions, it becomes quite difficult.  It takes you to some quite dark places.”

For a BBC story about the historic debate in British Parliament, go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18444516 or listen to the audio program discussing mental health stigma in Great Britain at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jwk5b.

In the United States as well, efforts to increase mental health literacy and decrease stigma are underway.    Former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici is one of only a few publicly elected officials in the U.S. to speak openly about mental illness.  The diagnosis of Mr. Domenici’s daughter with schizophrenia led to a long-time association for his family with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and in his championship of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008.  This ground-breaking legislation requires insurance plans to cover behavioral health illnesses in an equitable manner to coverage of physical health problems.  To read a TIME magazine interview with Sen. Domenici on this topic, go to http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1848887,00.html.

Those of us with direct personal or family experience with mental illness or addiction issues can have a very positive impact on reducing stigma and raising awareness when we choose to share some of our stories.  SAMHSA has published a white paper on this topic entitled Self-Disclosure and Its Impact on Individuals Who Receive Mental Health Services.  Advantages to sharing mental illness experiences include “not having to worry about hiding experiences with mental illness, finding others with similar experiences, and helping others understand mental health issues, which may even promote one’s own recovery process.”  There are also risks to self-disclosure, which include personal considerations related to trusting others with information and any negative experiences with sharing this information with others in the past.  The publication also cites considerations involving potential or actual employers, and how society perceives mental illness.  To read this SAMHSA publication, go to http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA08-4337/SMA08-4337.pdf.

Note:  No post of Walden Sierra (Walden Behavioral Health’s) Behavioral Health Blog is to be considered medical or therapeutic advice.