Covid-19 is taking a toll. Across the country, the strain of almost a year in a pandemic has manifested financially, physically and, for so many, psychologically. There was a time, not long ago, when it was taboo to bring up mental health struggles. Individuals and families concealed their confusion, loneliness and terror in the face of debilitating and life-threatening mental illnesses. Over the past decade, thanks to prominent and impactful leaders who have stepped forward to openly share their personal stories and to dedicated professionals who bring awareness and treat those with mental differences, the stigma surrounding mental illness here in the United States has diminished and help is more widely available. Below we pay tribute to the courageous leaders and effective institutions who are breaking new ground in the conversation about and treatment of mental health issues.
Glenn Close and Pamela Harrington, Bring Change to Mind
When Jessie Close, actress Glenn Close’s sister, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Jessie’s son, Calen Pick, was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, the actress turned her attention to understanding and destigmatizing mental illness. On the ten year anniversary of Bring Change to Mind, the nonprofit organization Close, founded in 2010, has broken open the conversation around mental health, drawing prominent figures in entertainment, sports and business to share their personal stories and join Close’s advocacy and fundraising efforts. Through media campaigns and youth programs, Bring Change to Mind aims to amplify the reality that mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, bipolar and schizophrenia among other disorders, are diseases of an organ of the body — in this case the most important organ of the body, the brain — with many causes. The message is clear: we must not blame or discriminate against those suffering from mental disorders.
“The stigmas around mental health are learned behaviors and we are working steadfastly to eliminate stigmas and discrimination,” says Executive Director Pamela Hamilton. “With empathy and understanding people can see that mental illness is an illness and it needs to be treated.” Bring Change to Mind’s High School Program gives teens a platform to share their voices and raise awareness. Through student clubs, peers become the first line of defense as they are empowered to educate one another and their communities. Over the past decade, Bring Change to Mind has reached more than 2 billion people and serves over 10,000 students in high schools across 22 states. Currently the organization has a waitlist of 200 high schools hoping to establish a Bring Change to Mind sponsored club. “The pandemic has made fundraising more difficult, but we are working very hard to scale our program and meet this need,” says Harrington.
Brandon Staglin and The Staglin Family, One Mind
Brandon Staglin, the President of One Mind, describes the psychotic break he experienced as a student at Dartmouth University in the 1990s as “the darkest period of my life, a time when I was convinced demons were around every corner, waiting to pounce and take me to hell.” When Staglin returned home to his family in Napa, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, sought treatment and began a gradual recovery.
It took time before medications and therapy began to help Staglin, who believes his family’s enduring love was an essential element in giving him the will to live with a complex and debilitating disease. He also credits his curiosity about what was happening to him — an open mind — and his own agency, meaning the actions he was able to take for himself to promote his own healing. Today, as the leader of One Mind, a nonprofit established by the Staglin family, Staglin brings a unique compassion to his work supporting others. One Mind has raised over a billion dollars to advance the science of brain health and extend services for those with mental illness.
For Staglin, the success One Mind has had in promoting new areas of brain research is deeply satisfying, as is collaborating with other mental health organizations and research institutions, but it is his personal connection with patients that makes him most proud of the work of the nonprofit. “For example, we established a clinic in the community here in Napa,” he says. “Seeing those patients, who are in the same position I was in, face their struggles and succeed, that is especially meaningful.”
The Robin Williams Family
In August of 2014, beloved comedian Robin Williams died by suicide at age 63. Williams had struggled with depression and an undiagnosed neurodegenerative disorder called Lewy Body Dementia in the period leading up to his death, and now his family is working to make sure others understand they are not alone in the face of mental health and brain disorders.
Robin Williams’ widow, Susan Schneider Williams, has become an advocate for Lewy Body disease and brain research. Schneider Williams lobbied in Washington, DC with the Michael J. Fox Foundation and others for increased resources for brain health disorders and helped set up the Lewy Body Dementia Fund. In 2020, Williams released a documentary entitled Robin’s Wish, detailing the comedian’s struggle and educating the public about this little known form of dementia.
Zak Williams, Robin Williams’ eldest son, has shared his personal experience with depression and substance abuse after the loss of his father, turning his struggle into an opportunity for advocacy. “One of the biggest risks we face in suicide prevention is the fear of the stigma associated with seeking mental health help and support,” Zak Williams shared on Instagram on Sept 10, 2020, the six year anniversary of his father’s death. “We need to show up for suicide survivors and for those contemplating suicide. Everyone is important and valuable, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, weird or wrong or negative in reaching out and getting help.” Williams also lost a close family friend, just 22 years old, to schizo-affective disorder/bipolar 1, leading him to co-launch 18percent, a “free and global online peer-to-peer support group centered around mental health.” Beyond providing a free peer-to-peer community, 18percent offers links to affordable therapy options. Williams also joined the board of Bring Change to Mind and speaks regularly about his own journey on podcasts and with the media.
Oprah Winfrey, The Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation
In 2018, Oprah Winfrey reported a story for 60 Minutes exploring the connection between childhood trauma and long term well-being that she says changed her life. “This story has had more impact on me than practically anything I’ve ever done,” says Winfrey who explored research around and outcomes of an intervention approach recognizing “ACEs” (Adverse Childhood Experiences).
The 60 minutes interview included leaders in the study of childhood trauma, including Dr. Bruce Perry, the Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, an Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern and Tim Grove of SaintA, a Milwaukee-based human services organization that strives to address the impact of trauma on children. SaintA was chosen by Ms. Winfrey as part of her $10 million pledge to provide Covid-19 relief in cities where she grew up and in May, 2019, Oprah’s foundation awarded SaintA a grant to provide telehealth mental health services to some Milwaukeeans hit hardest by Covid-19.
“Unless you fix the trauma that has caused people to be the way they are, you are working on the wrong thing,” Winfrey told her hosts on CBS This Morning in March of 2018. “You can’t build resilience and grit if there is a big hole in the soul.”
John Walkup MD, Lurie Children’s Hospital
Until 2008, says Dr. John Walkup, Head of the Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, anxiety disorders were not well understood. “We have known quite a bit about autism, ADHD and depression,” says Walkup. “But we were not as familiar with what is, ironically, the most common disorder, which is anxiety disorder.” In fact, says Dr. Walkup, some young people diagnosed with autism, ADHD or depression do not actually have those issues, but do have an underlying anxiety disorder.
In a 2008 Child/Adolescent Multimodal Study (CAMS), Walkup and his team at Lurie Children’s Hospital found that the combination of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and medication are superior to CBT treatment only. Now, they are undertaking a second study to explore the results of a “beefed up” CBT aspect to treatment in conjunction with parent-focused interventions and medication. Dr. Walkup aims to help primary care physicians identify anxiety disorders early as the earlier an anxiety disorder is identified and treated, the better the chance for both short and long term recovery.
Alexa James, NAMI Chicago
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) has become “almost like a mental health Czar” in the Chicago area, says Alexa James, CEO of NAMI Chicago. “We have become the leader in all things mental health. It is rare that the city will pass a policy without a consultation, we consult during emergencies with first responders, as well as deliver all training around mental health crises.”
NAMI works to educate the community through training, shifting perspectives by bringing in those who have experienced mental health issues into the conversation, often someone who does not fit the stereotype of someone with mental illness. Beyond education and training, a goal of NAMI Chicago is to be readily available for those in crisis in the community, and to fill in the gaps where social services might fall short. One example is the NAMI Chicago helped to train 911 police dispatchers to handle mental health related calls. Another example was when homeless shelters closed due to the pandemic, the NAMI Chicago team stepped in to fundraise and house the city’s homeless for 900 nights of hotel stays.
“From a policy perspective, we talk about a holistic approach to wellness. Healing communities is about jobs, equity, housing, etc. It’s not just a clinical practice.” says James. “Now this rhetoric and approach has been adopted by the new mayoral administration.”
Dr. Patrick Carnes, The Meadows: The Gentle Path
Dr. Patrick Carnes is the founder and primary architect of Gentle Path at The Meadows addiction treatment center in Wickenburg, Arizona. Dr. Carnes has been credited with introducing the public to the term “sex addiction” and has become the preeminent speaker and author on sex addiction and treatment. Carnes created the International Institute for Trauma & Addiction Professionals and launched the website Sexhelp.com. His Certified Sex Addiction Therapist program has evolved into a nationwide network of outpatient and residential programs specializing in this work.
“Sex addiction involves the same reward centers and the same chemicals as other addictions,” says Carnes. “The behaviors of sexual addiction tap into the same parts of the brain.” Yet sex addiction, like food addiction, can be more difficult than other additions because we are wired to be sexual. “Sex, like food, is about survival,” says Carnes. As the body of science around this addiction grows, Carnes believes the stigmas around sex addition will decrease.
Cameron Douglas, Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center
“Sometimes there is just a crack deep inside you, one you try to fill with drugs. And then the drugs take over,” writes Cameron Douglas, son and grandson of actors Michael Douglas and Kirk Douglas, in his recently published memoir Long Way Home. Douglas, who spent seven years in prison on drug-related charges says he thought he was fundamentally “not put together properly.”
Now Douglas is in recovery and works to raise awareness and funding for programs such as Above and Beyond Recovery Center in Chicago. Bryan Cressey, the founder of Above and Beyond, says his goal was to establish a treatment center welcoming all people, from all walks of life, equally. “Any person on earth, even down on their luck, or in prison, their life is as important to God as my life is,” said Cressy in a video address at the 2020 Above and Beyond Virtual Gala. The mission of the program is to serve the most fragile and vulnerable citizens of the Chicago area.
“At most places, if insurance doesn’t cover you, you are out the door,” says Douglas. “The simple fact that Above and Beyond takes people who are in need and will work with them as long as they need to, that is so powerful and it is important for people just coming through the doors to feel that.”
Kevin Love, The Kevin Love Fund
At first glance, Cleveland Cavaliers NBA superstar basketball player Kevin Love looks like the guy who has everything: NBA and Olympic championships, wealth, good looks and a supermodel girlfriend. That is why his candor around his personal struggle with mental illness has been extraordinarily powerful and has prompted other athletes to come forward and speak openly about their struggles. Love is normalizing the conversation around mental health amongst superstars and the general public alike.
“Call it a stigma or call it fear or insecurity — you can call it a number of things — but what I was worried about wasn’t just my own inner struggles but how difficult it was to talk about them. I didn’t want people to perceive me as somehow less reliable as a teammate, and it all went back to the playbook I’d learned growing up,” wrote Love in an article entitled “Everyone is Going Through Something” in The Player’s Tribune in March, 2018. After Love shared his experience with depression and anxiety in this widely-shared essay, he stepped into a role of leadership and advocacy, speaking regularly for organizations such as Mental Health America and Bring Change to Mind, and founding the Kevin Love Fund in 2018. Since then, Love has been awarded the ESPY Arthur Ashe Courage Award, Change Maker Award by the Child Mind Institute, the NBA Cares Assist Award and was a ESPY Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award finalist for his work around mental health advocacy.
Dr. Colleen Reichmann: Wildflower Therapy Eating Disorder Recovery
Dr. Colleen Reichman, author of The Inside Scoop on Eating Disorder Recovery, is a licensed clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and an eating disorders specialist and influencer who understands from personal experience what her clients experience. “At 14 years old, I weigh myself five, ten, sometimes 15 times a day. Always hoping for some magic number that didn’t exist. The results dictate my mood. Number up? Total devastation for the day. Number down? Cautious pride — but better double check in an hour, just to make sure,” writes Reichman on the Scary Mommy Website. The pursuit of thinness, she says, became more important than friends, more important than sports, more important even than health.
Reichmann is a young practitioner and by contrast to many therapy sites, her website is stylish and colorful. Beyond her private practice, media appearances, podcasts and professional training services, Reichmann has become one of social media’s most successful mental health influencers, garnering a following of over 81,000 followers on her Instagram account where she offers daily insight and information for those suffering from an eating disorder or body image issues. Reichmann’s online blogs cover nuanced topics around this mental health struggle, including such topics as eating disorder recovery and the holidays, the complicated role of exercise in recovery, and the slippery slope of the wellness culture.
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Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.