Speaking Your Truth About Mental Health

Speaking Your Truth About Mental Health

Monday is a special holiday: Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King was known for many things, chief among them his passionate voice that called for a nonviolent but forceful response to injustice. He faced many obstacles, but continued until his last breath to speak his truth, regardless of the consequences.

In the last few months, we’ve also seen another response to injustice, with women speaking out about sexual harassment and finally being heard and believed. It takes a lot of bravery to speak your truth when it’s something that is so personal and that has been dismissed, minimized or ridiculed in the past by the larger culture.

We have also seen a shift as more people speak about their mental health issues. That’s not easy to do in a culture where a long-held theme is that, if you’re feeling down, you just need to “pick yourself up by your bootstraps.”

At North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, our mission is to bring hope and healing to those experiencing mental illness and addictions issues, regardless of their ability to pay. But we also have another mission: To speak out against the stigma associated with having a mental health or chemical dependency issue.

Guidance Center Executive Director Andrew Malekoff has been advocating for many years regarding this issue. Below is a column he wrote for Anton Media.

“When we hear that our neighbor’s teenage son has been diagnosed with cancer, or that our colleague’s newborn has a heart defect, we shed some tears—and then we move into action. We bring meals; we offer to take their other kids to soccer games or piano lessons; we raise money so the parents can stay home from work to care for their ailing children.

But when we learn that our daughter’s best friend has been hospitalized for depression, or that a boy on our son’s basketball team has stopped going to school because of severe anxiety, we’re often at a loss as to how to respond.

Here’s a fact that may surprise you: Although more children suffer from psychiatric illness than autism, leukemia, diabetes and AIDS combined, only one of five with an emotional disturbance gets help from a mental health specialist. Moreover, 50 percent of serious mental illness occurs before the age of 14.

People with mental health problems and addictions, along with their families, often suffer in silence, while people with physical health problems evoke the sympathy and support of others. Why do we continue to treat illnesses above the neck differently than illnesses below the neck?

The sad truth is that there’s still a widespread stigma when it comes to mental health. The result? Parents who need help often wait months and even years to make that first phone call. A parent whose child is diagnosed with cancer doesn’t wait to ask for help. Waiting only happens with mental illness and addiction.

Fortunately, more than 60 years after our founding, North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center is still here to fight that stigma and provide help to children in need. Let me share a few of their stories.

We met six-year-old Jerome soon after he attempted to jump out a window because, as he said, “Nobody loves me.” Fifteen-year-old Celeste said the reason that she cuts her arms until they bleed is not to take her life, but to lower her blood pressure. And 14-year-old Maria told us that she lives in a house with a revolving door welcoming men who touch her.

Depression, anxiety, fear, child abuse, school refusal, bullying, isolation, drug addiction, domestic violence . . . we receive more than 100 calls a week, and increasing numbers are emergencies.

All across Long Island, mental health agencies are shuttering their doors, or they’ve been acquired by corporate entities with no roots in the community. That’s tragic, because community-based mental health organizations are as essential to the health and well-being of our children as hospitals or schools.

What can you do? First, tell your representatives that you value the mental health organization that serves your community and would like their support to ensure its future. And if you know someone whose child is suffering from a mental health issue, don’t ignore them. Make that phone call. Let them know you care.”

For information on what the Guidance Center is doing to combat stigma and to learn how you can help, visit our webpage and click on Project Access, a year-long study we conducted that looks at the difficulties in accessing mental health care, including the problem of stigma.