Column: How to reduce mental health stigma

Abby Dart

Many years ago, before Michigan legislators, doctors and public health professionals understood the nature of brain illnesses, two separate but not equal systems were developed. One of the early developments was to have a legislative code for mental health and a separate code for public health.

It is time to have one code: public health, which includes mental health. This will be a major step toward integration of care so desperately needed. Will it change any laws? No, but it will send a strong message to Michiganians and possibly the rest of the country that we, in Michigan, are serious about reducing the stigma.

It is now 2017 and we all know better. Illnesses affecting the brain (mental health) are, in fact, illnesses that are part of the body. To that end, we do a disservice to anyone affected by treatable conditions related to any aspect of brain disease by isolating them. In fact, doing so is what I believe has led to the stigma that shrouds mental health and impacts treatment for thousands of individuals and families who regularly are affected. The stigma prevents many Michigan residents from seeking early intervention for treatable conditions, which can see some end up in the legal system rather than the public health system.

I am not a mental health expert, not a doctor, nor a professor. Instead, I write as a survivor of suicide.

Back in 2004, my beloved husband, and father of five, Steve, successful attorney who had run for office and devoted himself to public service, committed suicide. Steve grew up in East Lansing, a member of the East Lansing High School Sports Hall of Fame, a shining star who went off to Harvard and came back to Lansing to serve clients.

It’s a long story, but the upshot is, as I tell people, the brain disease didn’t kill my husband, but the stigma did. The reason I say this is that he, like so many others, didn’t view seeking help for issues related to depression or anxiety as the same as treatment for high blood pressure or migraines.

Why is this? The reason seems clear to me. Over the years, legislators, insurers, physicians and hospitals have bought into the notion that the brain and the conditions that affect the brain are somehow different than other health conditions.

What does this lead to? It leads to a tragedy where a mother takes her teenage son with suicidal ideation to a hospital and is turned away because, well, you can’t see the broken arm, or hear the complaint of chest pains. It leads to a situation where a family member, hospitalized for depression, “feels better” and is released on his or her own volition. Would a patient recovering from a heart attack walk out of the hospital? I think not.

I ask our legislators to take this small step and save lives in the long run. Suicide is the second leading cause of death of children ages 10-24. If we can send a strong message that we believe seeking help for an illness of the brain is no different than seeking help for a condition affecting any other part of the body, young people won’t feel shame. Young people and others won’t be ostracized.

It’s too late for my family, but perhaps it won’t be too late for yours or your friend or colleague. I believe in the good leaders of our state. Let’s make a statement.

Abby Dart lives in Ann Arbor and holds a law degree from Loyola Law School.