November 1st, 2014

Billboards, initiative promote conversations about mental health

Massachusetts State Rep. Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset) notes that it is common to see electronic signs and other notices advertising the availability of flu shots at drug stores while the availability of mental health help is not similarly displayed.

That’s now beginning to change.

Seventy electronic billboards on Massachusetts roadways are sending a message: “Good Mental Health. It all starts with a conversation.” The billboard campaign is just one feature of a Department of Mental Health initiative started about a year ago called Community Conversations. It’s is a national movement first launched by President Obama.

The purpose of the program is to erase the stigma associated with mental illness, shine a light on available services and encourage preventative activities.

“There is a lack of understanding,” surrounding mental illness, says DMH Commissioner Marcia Fowler, one of which is the fact that people can recover from mental health issues and treatment can be effective.

According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about one in five adults or 20 percent of Americans ages 18 and older will experience mental health problems each year.

SAMHSA has produced a toolkit for individuals and organizations that want to set up community conversations in their neighborhoods. Fowler says that getting people talking helps to break down misconceptions and is an important first step. In addition, communities seeking to address mental health needs must reach all age groups and the facilitators should be “linguistically, age, and culturally appropriate,” she says.

For example, a young person who has had negative experiences in school would be better served interacting at a basketball court or gym where he is more comfortable.

Mental health professionals, Fowler says, play a key role in developing community based-solutions for individuals of all ages struggling with depression, anxiety and a host of other issues and recognizing that social factors such as poor housing, unemployment, traumatic events and more impact a person’s emotional well-being.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to invest in better physical and mental health,” Fowler says, adding that a goal is to see funding equitable for mental and physical health as well as the same “scientific rigor,” applied to both.

Last month, three conversations were held across the state. Haddad, who is co-chair of the Massachusetts General Court’s Mental Health Advisory Committee, helped to organize the first Behavioral Health Summit in the southeastern portion of the state last year.

The meeting’s outcome included propelling cooperation between local hospitals and other agencies seeking to treat people in the Southcoast with mental health issues.

Haddad says she is excited about the billboard campaign. “It’s way too easy to forget these people. Their families are exhausted. They are unable to advocate for themselves and there’s still a stigma concerning mental illness. It’s great to have these conversations starting…and put things out in the open,” she adds.

Fowler says that she’d like to see all 351 communities in the state embrace the conversation initiative over the next year.

By Susan Gonsalves

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