As we wind down another “May is Mental Health Month,” I can’t help but think about how much has changed since Vanguard began its first partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
At the time, most of the public viewed mental health issues through a “shame and blame” lens. Employers, schools and communities saw individuals with mental health challenges as burdens, with a prevailing treatment plan that shuttered adults in long-term facilities and separated families from their children who needed care by thousands of miles. In fact, in many cases, families were seen as part of the problem — and they were not consulted about services or treatment plans.
Over the past 20 years, we’ve watched dedicated advocates begin to change the conversation about mental health. We’ve seen families — and those living with serious mental health needs — fight to not only have a voice in treatment, but to have the first and final say in the services and supports that allow them to thrive.
These brave individuals, many of whom had to give up custody of their own children to get them help, have broken down strong societal barriers to acceptance and altered the way we view and treat mental health in the U.S. From laws that mandate parity for mental health care to three-dimensional, strength-based characters in TV and films, attitudes and actions are changing. We’re seeing more open and honest conversations about mental health and more individuals seeking help when they need it.
Of course, there is still progress to be made, particularly in conversations related to violence. We know that people with mental illnesses are commonly misperceived to be violent and are actually more than four times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population, yet the myths still persist — often for political expediency.
I’ve dedicated my professional life to communications and social marketing in hopes of making our world a better place for all of us. I’ve learned that one of the most important steps in implementing a social marketing effort is knowing when it’s time to expand the original vision.
Early on, mental health advocates were focused on ensuring that individuals experiencing mental illness could receive services in their own communities. As we see more families achieving that milestone, the vision has grown.
We now understand that individuals with mental illness can and do recover. They can live, work, learn, and participate fully, finding a fulfilling and productive life just like you and me. This is the new vision, and one that advocates are determined to achieve. As communicators, we have an important role in helping them achieve that vision.
Let’s not limit our communications and advocacy work to “Mental Health Month.”
Let’s keep our voices loud and strong all year long. And, no matter what, let’s stay determined to support each other in pursuit of equity for all.