Advocates Use Baby Steps to De-Stigmatize Mental Illness

I wouldn’t make it as a therapist, a lobbyist, or any other professional where patience and an appreciation for incremental change are part of the job description.

That dawned on me as I contemplated how different my reaction to a recent piece of news was from the reaction of experts.

The topic was Kansas City’s status as one of only a handful of communities around the country scheduled to host a “community conversation” about mental health later his year.

I’ve observed mental health advocacy for nearly two decades, and it seemed to me that the last thing we needed was another discussion about the gaps in the mental health safety net.

People still decry the stigma attached to mental illness, agitate for more inpatient beds, and wring their hands about a fractured outpatient system where crises often end up in the laps of law enforcement.

But here’s where the part about embracing baby steps comes in.

Mental health advocates said that every conversation, every forum, presents another opportunity to move the needle a little bit more away from the “snap out of it” perception of mental illness.

It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in the labeling of people with mental illness.

The state hospital I covered in St. Joseph, Mo., opened in 1874 as State Lunatic Asylum No. 2.

Progress has been uneven, though.

Three years ago, roughly 60 percent of Kansas voters agreed to strip language from the constitution that allowed the Legislature to deny voting rights to the mentally ill. That still meant about 40 percent of the voters wanted the language left alone, noted Rick Cagan, executive director at the Kansas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

One takeaway from commentary surrounding the issue of mental health, including in blogs and journals, seems to be that the efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness have been too abstract and, well, too depressing.

Many commentators call on activists, entertainers and every-day folks to share their own stories about coping with mental illness. The commentaries also suggest highlighting the strength of people who cope with mental illness.

As Cagan suggested, maybe the word about mental illness will seep deeper and deeper into the collective consciousness as one generation gives way to the next.

That would certainly take time – and patience.

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