By Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen
Founder & President, Give an Hour
Read article on Huff Post Here.
Since launching the Campaign to Change Direction in March 2015, I have often been asked why–and how–Give an Hour, a national nonprofit organization that provides free mental health care to those who serve, their families, and their communities, took on the challenge of changing the culture of mental health in America. The “why” part of this question is very simple. If we don’t change the broader culture around mental health–if we don’t recognize that our mental well-being is just as important as our physical well-being, if we don’t learn the signs that indicate that someone is in emotional pain and might be in danger–the men, women, and families who serve our country will continue to suffer and 22 veterans a day will continue to end their lives by suicide.
Mental health isn’t a military or veteran issue: one in five Americans has a diagnosable mental health condition (SAMHSA 2014). But the men and women who serve our country face challenges, stress, and sometimes horrific trauma that place them at significant risk for the development of mental health struggles and suffering. In addition, the men and women who join the military are like all of us: they bring with them the genetic predispositions and the life experiences that leave them either more or less likely to develop conditions that cause them and their families difficulties. When you combine the potential stress of military life with the individual tendencies that everyone carries, is it any wonder that we see mental health challenges among our service members?
Of course, we must continue to engage in research to develop effective approaches to address mental health conditions and we must focus on improving access to care for those in need. But the primary issue that keeps those in emotional pain from seeking and receiving help is the way that they–and we all–think and feel about mental health. Despite the volume of research about the many factors that lead to mental health conditions and mental illness, many of us believe that we should be able to “suck it up,” “man up,” or “power through” these conditions and challenges. In our culture we act as if mental illness is a sign of shame and needing mental health treatment means that you are weak. Some people turn to alcohol and drugs in an attempt to numb the pain they feel or the anxiety that torments them. Drinking to excess is somehow more socially acceptable–unless, of course, you develop a drinking problem and then you are doubly cursed and seen as even weaker and more damaged.
We can’t prevent emotional suffering, and that isn’t the goal of this national effort. Emotional suffering is part of the human condition. The goal of the Campaign to Change Direction is to encourage all Americans to embrace a more realistic appreciation of this aspect of the human experience. We need to pay attention so that we ensure those in need receive the care they deserve. And let’s model the importance of paying attention to our emotional well-being for our children so that we facilitate a lifetime of healthy functioning for them. We place a tremendous emphasis on physical fitness in our culture. Isn’t it time to place that same emphasis on emotional fitness? We wouldn’t want our loved ones to ignore physical conditions that might interfere with their functioning or shorten their life. Why would we want them to ignore emotional conditions that might do the same?
And what about the question of “how” are we building a successful movement to change the culture of mental health in America? We began with 50 partners and a goal of reaching 30 million Americans over five years. As we approach our first anniversary I am proud to report that we have already shared the Five Signs (five key indicators of emotional suffering) over 176 million times. This doesn’t mean that all of the people who have seen the Five Signs through social media, digital ads, articles, and newsletters, have committed them to memory; but it does mean that we are getting great exposure and creating important awareness. In addition, the Five Signs posters are now appearing in high schools, on college campuses, and in community centers. Just as everyone knows the signs of a heart attack, soon all Americans will know the Five Signs of emotional suffering and they will know what to do when they see them.
This initiative is successful because Give an Hour isn’t alone in this effort. We have amazing champions and over 180 dedicated partners now, with more individuals and organizations adding their voices every day. First Lady Michelle Obama joined us at the launch of the campaign last spring and has continued to use her influence and her platform to raise awareness and to encourage all Americans to pay attention to this conversation. We are so proud–and grateful–to the First Lady and to Dr. Jill Biden for their support and their leadership. They know the importance of this conversation for our military families and for all Americans. They understand that our nation’s service members, veterans, and their families will be the ones to lead this very important cultural shift for our nation.
Culture change takes time, but we know what it looks like it. There have been many successful cultural shifts in my lifetime. When I was growing up our cars didn’t have seatbelts, and no one talked about cancer publicly. Now every car on the road has seatbelts and air bags, and people wear their yellow wristbands and pink ribbons proudly. When I was in college, there was no such thing as a “designated driver,” and communities all across the country lost far too many young people in drunk driving accidents every year. Now responsible young adults identify the person who will forgo drinking before the gang heads out to the party or the bar.
Give an Hour and our partners in this collective impact effort will continue to do the heavy lifting as we grow this movement. It is an honor to work with the leaders and organizations that have answered our call to action. But all of us can do our part. We can all learn these five simple signs: personality change, agitation, withdrawal, lack of personal care, and hopelessness. We can teach our kids, start conversations with friends, and put posters up in dorms, offices, and community spaces.
And if you have the interest or the opportunity to do more, reach out to us at changedirection.org. Become a partner, make a pledge, support the cause, and get involved. Help us change the culture of mental health in America. We can ensure that all of those who suffer–whether civilians or those who defend our country–get the mental health care and support they need. No one chooses to struggle with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. No one chooses to experience post-traumatic stress. And no one deserves to feel guilt or shame because he or she is in emotional pain, any more than someone with cancer deserves to feel embarrassed about his or her illness.
We can ensure all of our children know that if they are struggling or hurting, there is help available and they don’t ever need to feel that they are damaged, weak, or broken. Together we can Change Direction.