Kenneth Houseknecht carries the memories of those he loves during the workday. He pulls on shared stories of mania and melancholia to help him execute his responsibilities as executive director for the Mental Health Advocates of Western New York.
So does Michele Brooks, the executive director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness Buffalo & Erie County.
One out of five American adults grapple with mental illness during any given year, and more than half will be diagnosed with a mental health illness or disorder in their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Beyond the data, the research, the infographics and reports, there are the lives and the stories including family and friends of both Brooks and Houseknecht, whose devotion to their loved ones serve as a catalyst for changing the system of care to better serve those struggling.
“As a young adult, I came to understand that my own father was dealing with a lifelong clinical depression,” Houseknecht said. “[By] understanding that, it gave me a deeper appreciation for all of the challenges he faced in being a father of five children, a successful businessperson and yet because of that [depression] a person who woke up every morning and strapped on a 25-pound backpack and carried that through life. That’s what it feels like for a lot of people living with depression.”
But the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness often silence people suffering from reaching out.
“A big barrier to reaching out and getting help is stigma. I take the word stigma and replace it with three other words. I would say silence, people remain silent about what is going on in their own life and the lives of people they care about. Shame, they feel like something is wrong with them, that they’re defective or broken in some way —which is not true,” Houseknecht said. “The third would be separation. People tend to isolate when they’re going through situations like that at exactly the moment and time when they need community.”
Michael Ranney, the Erie County Mental Health commissioner, defined stigma as myths and misinformation surrounding mental health. Ranney’s office and the Mental Health Association of Western New York are a part of the Erie County’s Anti-Stigma Coalition which launched in fall 2015.
“Our goals and objectives are to create a campaign that promotes mental health awareness and looks to end stigma that surrounds mental health and mental illness,” Ranney said. “It has become a barrier because of these negative connotations that surround it — that you’re weak, that there is no hope, that there is something wrong with an individual, which is totally not true.”
The Anti-Stigma Coalition works to solve how stigma “prevents people from seeking help ... restricts resources from being allocated. And it discourages others from lending their support.”
According to the “Attitudes Toward Mental Illness and Stigma” report by the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “These types of disparities in education, employment, and access to care can have cumulative long-term negative consequences.”
Due to this, few seek care and those who do wait an average of eight to 10 years for a person to seek help for a mental health condition, according to NAMI.
“It’s not just stigma, it is true prejudice. There is prejudice out there. People don’t hire people if they have a history or they have an inkling that someone might have a mental health disorder,” Brooks said. “People who don’t really want to talk about their illness, there are some very valid reasons that they don’t.”
But, more people are becoming open about their struggles and are attempting to break the stigma, Ranney said.
“People are interested, people are more willing to have conversations about any mental health issues that they may have because they are seeing, hearing and learning that it’s OK,” he said. “We need to have the conversation and there needs to be more talk about mental health awareness and less whispering.”
Ranney credits that to programs like the #LetsTalkStigma campaign operated by the Anti-Stigma Coalition, where 2,480 people as of run date have signed a pledge to talk openly about mental health conditions.
Part of that conversation involves understanding that mental health conditions exist on a spectrum. Some are a lifelong clinical illness like Houseknecht’s father, others are situational like depression after the loss of a loved one.
While the terms mental health and mental illness are commonly used interchangeably, there is a difference.
“Mental health refers to the overall wellbeing of an individual very much similar to someone’s physical health,” Pennington said. “Just because someone has mental health doesn’t mean someone has a mental illness. Mental illness is defined more so as a medically diagnosed illness where the individual is presenting with certain symptoms that meet criteria.”
A person can have poor mental health without having a mental illness and a person with mental illness can have good mental health.
But treatment is effective in 70 to 90 percent of cases, according to NAMI.
“There are people in the lives of everyone in Western New York who have been living with mental health conditions successfully for many years that you would not even know about because they have got it so well in balance and so well in control,” Houseknecht said.
There are many resources in the area that provide varying degrees of treatment, from NAMI Buffalo & Erie County that provides services to families, to Mental Health Advocates of Western New York that works with youth and adults, to Chautauqua County Department of Mental Hygiene that provides clinical and therapeutic treatment options.
Annie Rosenthal, public relations coordinator for Chautauqua County Department of Mental Hygiene, highlights some effective treatments for people suffering from poor mental health or mental illness which include private counseling and group therapy.
In addition to talk therapy, there are also clinics that focus on evidence-based practices, or treatment options that have been researched thoroughly and shown to be effective.
“Examples of those would be cognitive behavioral therapy and that is a process in which the therapist works with an individual on restructuring the thoughts that cause certain behaviors,” Pennington said. "There’s also dialectical behavioral therapy which is shown to be highly effective in treating individuals with personality disorders, substance use disorders — any kind of disorder really. That works on treating individuals’ specific coping skills to deal with the strong emotions they feel and the urges they get.”
There are medications that people can use, but medication is often most effective when coupled with other forms of treatment.
“Some people think that they’re going to be able to take a pill and treat their health problem and that’s the only thing they have to do, but [like] a lot of things other than mental health you can’t just take a pill. There is continued therapy, continued checking in with a doctor,” Rosenthal said.
Despite the effectiveness of the treatment, stigma is the first of several barriers for people to overcome.
“Even though a large number of people will experience a mental health challenge over the course of their lifetime — and no family, workplace, neighborhood, school, community of worship will be immune — the vast majority of people, six in 10, who have a mental health condition will never get help,” Houseknecht said.
Local experts said the first step in improving the system of care is to talk about mental health, to move beyond the numbers, data and research and address stigma is the first, but not the only, barrier that many face when struggling with mental health conditions.
“Facts and figures inform people, stories grab people by the heart,” Houseknecht said. “Tell stories of people who have successfully overcome challenges, tell stories of people who are still living with challenges and tell of people who, sadly, didn’t like the Anthony Bourdains of the world.”
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Resources in Western New York
Listed below are some of the resources available in WNY. This list is not expansive.
- NAMI Buffalo & Erie County:
- Mental Health Advocates of Western New York:
- Chautauqua County Department of Mental Hygiene:
Chautauqua County Suicide Prevention and Crisis Hotline: 1-800-724-0461
- Erie County Department of Mental Health:
- Crisis Services 24-hour hotline Buffalo and Erie County:
Three Ways To Help
1. Take the pledge to talk about stigma: https://letstalkstigma.org
2. Listen to your loved ones.
“The most important thing is to listen,” Pennington said. “Take the time to sit down with their loved ones and just let them explain what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, be there for them, let them know what their options are and offer to be there with them and support them through that rather than blaming and shaming them.”
3. Volunteer: NAMI Buffalo & Erie County operates mostly through non-paid staff and is looking for people to help volunteer.