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Erasing Stigma, One Vote at a Time

A national conversation about mental health begins at the ballot box.

Like Americans from all walks of life, families who deal with serious mental health challenges will head to the polls next week to choose elected representatives to fill Congress, state houses and town halls across the country. As we prepare to make our choices, we would be well served as a community and as a nation to bring the private battles we fight daily into the forefront of our civic consciousness.

In recent weeks, we have seen the national dialogue around mental health issues advanced by the courage and openness of Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta in discussing their own family’s struggle. Their efforts are laudable not only because of their stated purpose in trying to end stigma around these issues for all families, but also because of what they are saying about the state of mental healthcare—or more precisely, the lack thereof—both around the world and here in the United States. Most notable is Lady Gaga’s observation that, “at present, every nation in the world is a ‘developing’ country when it comes to mental health.”

Bold declarations like this are what will help draw the attention of those in power who control the purse strings and write the laws, as well as lead to a more honest appraisal about the action that’s needed to advance mental health in society. The time is now for voters to mobilize around mental health issues and to insist that those candidates we support are those who hear our concerns and are willing to act on them in a timely way.

While we may be a ways off from coalescing around mental health the way that we have with cancer or other physiological diseases, we can make some important strides quickly. Here are some places to start.

Ending Stigma

The most important first step we can take is to end the stigma around discussing mental health. After all, if it’s not okay to talk about these issues openly and honestly, then we’ll never make progress. To be sure, celebrities who lend their voices to mental health are powerful forces for raising awareness and affecting change. The more celebrities come forward, the less shame and stigma others will feel, and we will continue to draw mental health out of the shadows and into the light. But imagine what would happen if everyday families were to do the same – not necessarily in opinion pages and on television, but in the ballot booth. One in four people will deal with a personal mental health condition at some point during our lifetime, and if not us, then likely someone close to us. There is real strength in numbers, but only if we come together as a community around a set of principles and ideals.

Language Matters

Just as crucial is how we talk about mental health. Let’s face it: language and labels do matter, and the people we elect need to hear that from us. The same way it is unacceptable for those in public life to misuse racial and sexual labels, it should be equally unacceptable to perpetuate bias against those who suffer from mental disabilities. In most cases, fear and ignorance around mental illness is borne from a lack of understanding, rather than a lack of compassion. The more we humanize mental health conditions through language and education, the more compassion will prevail.

Combat Misinformation Through Education

Tearing down stigma and building productive conversations will lead to real breakthroughs in the public domain. As we talk more and more about mental health, we can chip away at misinformation and provable falsehoods (e.g. the untrue presumption that the mentally ill are prone to violence) and educate policymakers and the public alike.

Commitment to Better and Greater Resources

Once we have begun to educate, that’s when the real potential exists to unlock critical resources. No one would dispute our country’s need for a greater and more urgent commitment to mental health resources. Our communities require more outpatient services that are better funded and accessible to those who need them. Our psychiatric facilities need more inpatient beds and more trained professionals to service them. And families need more sustainable options for supportive housing programs for their loved ones. We must insist that a commitment to better and more adequate resources is a precondition to earning our vote.