Attending The Mental Health America 2016 Annual Conference Offers Hope… But, It Is an Uphill Climb
I took my seat at one of the round banquet tables inside the sprawling ballroom at the Alexandria, Virginia Hilton just outside Washington, DC last week, not sure what to expect.
I introduced myself to the nice folks who had begun to gather. We were wearing lanyards, which automatically broke down any social barriers – united by a common cause (mental well-being), and plastic name tags containing two drink tickets (on sponsored cords around our necks).
Almost immediately what would become the theme of the next few days made itself known. It was in the form of a short video showcasing how mental illness is portrayed in the media.
And it how it is portrayed is deplorable.
The title of this year’s impressive conference – a first rate event filled with valuable content, moving stories of survival and hope, and forward thinking objectives – was Media, Messaging and Mental Health.
As the images flashed across the screen it dawned on me, perhaps for the first time, how badly people with mental illness are represented. Psycho, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, sitcoms, crime dramas, and even worse, the sensational headlines about “crazy people on the loose who need to be locked away” we see in breaking news reports.
The MHA (much like our wonderful clients The Canadian Mental Health Association) acknowledge that there are people struggling with mental health who sometimes commit crimes. But we have reached a point where incarceration is the solution to mental health challenges.
There is another way.
CMHA and MHA are champions of b4stage4, an initiative developed to catch mental health issues early, so people can get treatment before they lose hope. B4stage4 was a recurring theme at the conference.
Perhaps the most moving moment of MHA 2016 was a speech given by mental health advocate Sue Klebold. She is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters. Ms. Klebold spoke eloquently about her journey, the guilt, remorse, grieving for the loss of her son and the other families effected by his actions. She strikes a stoic figure of resolve and, perhaps surprisingly, optimism, that we are moving, however slowly, in the right direction.
The conference was a wonderful mix of stories, entertainment, and creativity. Expertly led by MHA President and CEO Paul Gionfriddo, MHA Conference 2016 was a beautifully produced event. It seems this important organization, founded over a century ago by Clifford Beers is in good hands.
Other highlights included:
- the finish of a cross-country relay race The Ice Breaker Run featuring ten vibrant runners raising awareness for mental health
- a riveting conversation with Suzy Favor Hamilton, US star sprinter who battled bipolar disorder, and ended up working as an escort in Las Vegas before recovering and returning to her family
- an impassioned speech from Patrick Kennedy, son of Senator Edward Kennedy. Patrick appeared to be channeling the inspirational public speaking styles of his famous father and uncles as he passionately called for change in government legislation to get early treatment for those who are suffering.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Mr. Kennedy and when I told him I was from Toronto, he expressed the hope that Prime Minister Trudeau will take action to help youth struggling with mental illness in this country as well.
There is a long way to go in shattering the stigma attached to mental illness. The media uses terms like crazy and wacko to describe citizens who are in real crisis, and who have slipped through the cracks. We need to decide if incarceration is the best way to pay for the treatment of mental illness, or if we should choose a more progressive stance.
A century ago, we “locked them up in chains and threw away the key”. Not much has changed, really.
But it can.