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Let's Put Our Money Where Our Brains Are

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 13/10/2015 Janine Francolini

Last week, Mental Health Awareness Week celebrated its 25th anniversary ending with a global celebration on World Mental Health Day. This important week of awareness coincided with the release of Patrick Kennedy's memoir,A Common Struggle, which details his personal journey as well as his family's history of mental illness and addiction.
The reveal has not been well received by his family, with both Joan Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, Jr. expressing their disappointment in the media-- a reaction Patrick Kennedy sees as part of the problem. For as long as Patrick Kennedy has been alive, his family's brain health challenges and his own struggles with anxiety, bipolar disorder, and addiction -- have all been colored as "personal issues" not "medical issues." The silence and the shame were deafening, and Patrick Kennedy's book is an attempt to show how, "Most families are frozen by the shame and hostage to the silence."
2015-10-13-1444754740-735194-PatrickJKennedyfamily.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2015-10-13-1444754740-735194-PatrickJKennedyfamily.jpg
The Kennedys, in this way, are truly America's every family: In 2014, 43.5 million Americans age 18 and older were reported to have a mental illness (including a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder only). That is over 18 percent of all U.S. adults. For children, that number is even higher, with every 1 in 5 children having experienced some type of mental health challenge over the course of their childhood.
We have a health crisis on our hands; and the shame surrounding it has prevented many individuals from getting the care that they need. The reaction of the Kennedy family to their son and brother's memoir is indicative of how much we want to distance ourselves from these issues that affect every single one of us-- we want to sweep them under the rug and leave them there indefinitely. That is why we should celebrate a heroic move like his, a brave first step in shattering both the silence around this epidemic and the "othering" we condone by not talking about it.
So, where do we go from here? We honor those living with brain disorders once a year and a member of America's most legendary political family has started to lift the lid on how they've been personally affected -- but what next?
First, we need to change the way we talk about this topic, as our language does more harm than good. For example, on a recent This Week with George Stephanopolous, which discussed the Umpqua Community College shooting, there were several demeaning characterizations of individuals with brain disorders. George Stephanopolous referred to people living with these conditions as "crazy people." News anchor Greta Van Susteren said that commentators were trying to use mental illness as an excuse for the "awful lot of evil out there."

When an individual is diagnosed with a brain disorder they are not "crazy," they are not "evil" -- they are living with a disease like any other disease. Chris Harper-Mercer, who killed nine people and himself, appeared to have Asperger's syndrome and depression. He was discharged from the Army in 2008 after a suicide attempt. These comments portray individuals who have brain disorders as dismissible, as someone else's problem, as people who we cannot ever understand or help. This language relegates Chris Harper-Mercer, and all others with brain disorders, to a nonhuman sideline. What's more, these characterizations keep us in a mode of paralysis and justify our decision not to take action.
Our language is indicative of our dismissal, and research has shown that "othering" individuals in this way -- placing them outside of society by shaming their condition -- can often worsen their health. We wouldn't talk about individuals with heart disease or cancer or diabetes in this way, so why is it acceptable to have this kind of attitude towards those with mental illnesses? As Patrick Kennedy has put it, his family "is celebrated for being cancer survivors, but stigmatized for being survivors of mental illness and addiction."
We need to stop "othering" and start respecting brain disorders as serious health issues. We also need to get political and take action to start funneling money and resources into research and care. In 2013, the budget for the National Institute of Mental Health was approximately $1.479 billion; in that same year, the budget for the National Cancer Institute was approximately $4.789 billion. That difference is staggering, and it's time to acknowledge the fact that adequate governmental funding for mental health research and treatment is a mandatory step in dealing with this crisis.
After the Umpqua shooting, a fund was set up for Chris Mintz, the veteran and student who protected countless students from being harmed that day. In the course of only a few days, donations poured in, totaling over $800,000. This wonderful act of solidarity, compassion, and love shows our capacity to care for each other and, ultimately, our ability to put our money where our mouth is. We're used to fundraising for things like cancer AIDS, heart disease and for survivors of calamities. Let's put our urgency to the test and start fundraising for mental health in the same way we fund other causes.
At the Flawless Foundation, we've seen how even the smallest action can have an impact. Just think of how many hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised by children trick or treating for Unicef or selling Girl Scout Cookies. Earlier this year our colleague, Cinda Johnson, introduced us to her friend whose daughter, Mary Guest, had recently died from suicide. This connection not only resulted in the funding of a mental health symposium in Mary's memory but also resulted in a further collaboration with the writer, Andrew Solomon, who went on to write an important piece for The New York Times Magazine, featuring Mary's story. This activism was born from this one family's courage in naming the cause of death in their daughter's obituary and taking action to prevent this type of unfathomable loss for other families.
If these examples show us anything it's that we can only make progress if we give our brain health the recognition it deserves as just another organ in our bodies to be cared for like any other organ. After all, for those with heart disease, breast cancer or ALS we have compassion and a commitment to cures. We must not let mental illness fall off our list when it comes to the empathy, activism and investment we need for action. Last week, I spoke about how we need to develop an "army of the kind" which is a good start. Now we must take the next step and develop an "army of activists". It is time to put our money where our brains are.

PATRICK KENNEDY © John Lamparski via Getty Images PATRICK KENNEDY

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