Speaking up for “The Silent Minority”

FCBK 1By Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

Imagine a teacher standing in front of her class and asking the question, “Students, what’s the largest minority in America? Is it African-Americans? Is it Latinos? Is it the so-called LGBT population or something else altogether?”

When the students all guess incorrectly she replies, “The right answer is: People with mental health issues. They are in every family, including yours, suffering from diagnosable mental health conditions like depression or anxiety.  That adds up to over 40 million people or roughly 1 in every 5 adults.”

The teacher then tells them that this figure doesn’t even include children like themselves, who, among other things, also experience A.D.H.D, eating disorders and learning disabilities.change 2

In 2013, Michele Obama and Jill Biden got together with leaders in business, medicine, education and the faith community and launched the Campaign to Change Direction. The goal was to raise awareness, give people tools to help those in need and change the conversation about mental health in this country.

Obama and Biden were initially drawn to the deplorable condition of the thousands of our soldiers who were coming home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and committing suicide, and the alarm we all felt on the heels of the Newtown, Conn. tragedy.

The Campaign to Change Direction released a list of Five Signs to help people recognize when someone needs help:

  • Agitation
  • Withdrawal
  • Hopelessness
  • Decline in personal care
  • Change in personality

Of late, as we’ve witnessed these many political debates, we’ve heard a lot about taxes, jobs, the economy, immigrants and terrorism. On the Republican side, we’ve also heard about continuing the attack on repealing the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare.” But we hear nothing about how to deal with an ongoing epidemic of mental illness and the tens of millions among us who suffer in silence.

The Affordable Care Act expanded mental health and substance use disorder benefits and required the new plans to cover depression screenings for adults and behavioral assessments for kids. In fairness, George W. Bush also demanded that insurance companies give mental illness equal protection, but the private health care system offered too many ways for insurance companies to avoid doing it to any significant degree.

Mrs. Obama wrote that by bringing together this diverse group of leaders they planned to spark a movement that:

  • Frees us to see our mental health as having equal value to our physical health
  • Creates a common language to recognize the signs of emotional suffering in ourselves and others
  • Encourages us to care for our mental well-being and the mental well-being of others

“More Americans are expected to die this year by suicide than in car accidents,” wrote Mrs. Obama. “While many of us are comfortable acknowledging publicly our physical suffering, for which we almost always seek help, many more of us privately experience mental suffering, for which we almost never reach out.

“Sadly, too often, the stigma around mental health prevents people who need help from seeking it. But that simply doesn’t make any sense … We would never tell someone with a broken leg that change 3they should stop wallowing and get it together. We don’t consider taking medication for an ear infection something to be ashamed of. We shouldn’t treat mental health conditions any differently. Instead, we should make it clear that getting help isn’t a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of strength – and we should ensure that people can get the treatment they need.”

Dr. Ismail Sendi

Dr. Ismail Sendi

New Oakland was created 25 years ago by our founder, Ismail Sendi, for the very same reasons Michele Obama stresses. Diagnosing and treating mental illness had been all but abandoned by many states and our emergency rooms and jails were becoming jammed with the seriously mentally ill.

Though far from perfect, Obamacare has attempted to address this. If the next president is a Republican dedicated to repealing it, then we must insist that, unlike the previous system, care and treatment for mental health is firmly addressed in whatever system replaces it.

Mrs. Biden and Obama ask all of us pledge to learn the Five Signs of emotional suffering listed above. Her words echo those of Dr. Sendi: “We need to have the courage to reach out and have tough conversations with our friends and family members — and get help ourselves when we need it. And we need to recognize that our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and start treating it that way.”

Through my work at New Oakland, I’ve felt empowered to help spread the word about recognizing the signs of mental illness and fighting the stigma and stereotypes that force so many people to suffer in silence. One way to truly “Make America Great Again” is for all of us to take the simple pledge and demand that our leaders not ignore the serious issue of mental health in America.