The Secret We Keep: Removing the stigma of mental illness

The Dallas Examiner

Mental illness is an issue that is not often talked about or taken into consideration – until it hits home. In 2014, it was reported that 72.9 percent of adults in Texas have mental illness, and 27.1 percent of Texas minors have a mental illness before the age of 18, according to Mental Health America of Greater Dallas.

Many people don’t understand mental illness or how to handle someone with a mental disorder. Jails are filled to capacity with mentally ill family members that were not able to get sufficient help for their condition – making Dallas County jail the second-largest mental health facility in Texas.

In an effort to shed light on this problem, ReShonda Tate-Billingsley, well-known author and journalist, joined The Secret We Keep: Destigmatizing Mental Illness, a panel discussion to bring awareness and provide a security blanket to those seeking guidance.

“I really wanted to focus on something that showed it is ok to not be ok,” she said.

The event is based on Billingsley’s book and TV One-produced film The Secret She Kept, which is about a young woman who goes through strenuous hurdles to hide her mental disorder from her husband. The former National Enquirer reporter joined the panel to emphasize removing mental health stigmas and her personal experiences with mental illness.

“I have mental illness in my family, but like a lot of families, that gets brushed underneath the rug,” she said. “I wanted us to understand the message, and I wanted us to not turn our backs.”

The panel discourse included local experts who have worked closely with mentally ill patients and can offer the necessary information and resources people need to understand the disease.

“Our vision of mental illness is someone who can’t function and go forward, [but] they are functioning. They are the person sitting next to you, but they’re scared to tell you because of what you would think about them,” said Senior Cpl. Herb Cotner, Dallas Police mental health liaison.

Audience members connected to the panelists as they described their personal experiences with mental health issues, such as Sherry Cusumano, National Alliance of Mental Illness president, who shared her struggle with depression and alcohol recovery while working in a professional setting.

“The toughest thing for me was that I’m so anti-stigma, but then I had to discover it within myself,” Cusumano said. “I had to internalize that stigma and tell people my story.”

The event also served as a public emotional support group that allowed viewers to open up and feel secure with their uncertainties.

“It is ok not to know what to do, but we have the resources out there now to say, ‘Ok. I am going to educate myself and that will help me lay a path out for my family member,’” said Bryan Cuban, mental health advocate and brother of Dallas Maverick owner Mark Cuban.

Panelist experts directly told attendees about what various organizations are doing to tackle mental illness stigmas.

Cotner said local police officers receive psychological tests before joining the department and are constantly watched to ensure residents are treated appropriately.

“We had to learn how to teach and interact with people and learn about what is important breaking down the stigma,” he explained. “We have scenario-based training, and we have these police officers interact with people who have mental illnesses and resolve conflict.”

Aside from the police department, the National Association of Mental Illness has created a new initiative, Ending the Silence, targeting school-aged children to address early development of mental disorders. About 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24, according to NAMI.

“A young person in recovery will tell their story of illness, what [they’ve] been through, recovery, and where their life is at now,” Cusumano said as she explained the program. “Then, a family member or caretaker will tell their story, and it has a tremendous impact. It gives people permission to talk about what’s happening in their lives and their families.”

During the Q&A session, the controversy behind behavioral health medication and side effects became a huge topic.

“Some of the meds do have side effects; it’s a matter of finding the profile that is acceptable to you, Cusumano expressed. “It’s a cost-benefit ratio. If you’re on your meds and you can live your life how you want to live it, then that’s pretty good. If one doesn’t work for you, let your doctor know.”

Suddenly, the closing session took a drastic, emotional turn after Keisha Bass, Crowley ISD teacher and track coach, raised more questions about mental illness at school.

Recently, fellow Crowley ISD teacher Frederick Jay Bowdy committed suicide live on Facebook, and the incident has greatly affected Bass and Tarrant County students.

“I’ve had to take razor blades from girls in the locker room. One of our kids from track last week said, ‘My uncle said I’m going to hell because I am depressed,” she expressed.

Bass said problems following the tragedy has led to her having to re-evaluate her mental health and wanting to speak out to help the students, but she wasn’t sure how to address it or if she’ll be effective.

The track coach was quickly reassured by the panel experts and the crowd and was given a piece of advice that ultimately summarized the importance of the entire event.

“Someone is interested in what you really have to say; you just haven’t told them yet,” Cuban said. “Breaking culture does not happen overnight. Breaking the cultural of stigma takes time, but it starts with all of you out there, on a grassroots level in how we address it, publicly or privately.”

Anyone looking for resources in the Dallas area can contact http://www.namidallas.org.

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