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Ranus: Acceptance is key to changing mental health attitudes

Petite and attractive with a quick wit and a feisty attitude, Liza recently celebrated 18 years at her workplace, where she is known as a hard-working, loyal and reliable team player. She adores pit bulls, loves traveling with her husband, is close to her family and is an active community volunteer. Liza also lives with and manages a serious mental illness.

She loves to tell people that her two passions are pit bulls and mental illness because both are awash with misunderstanding and stigma. Ten years ago when she was first diagnosed, she was relieved to have some reason to explain the past — littered with an arrest for the assault of a police officer, toxic relationships and constant instability. She struggled with accepting how her life would change, no differently than any person faced with the diagnosis of a serious and chronic illness.

Nobody wants to have an illness that is stigmatized, requires medication and consistent self-care. In fact, a survey done by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute for Texas indicated that nine out of ten Texans think it’s harder for people to talk about a mental health condition than a physical health condition.

In spite of the reluctance to talk about mental illnesses, these conditions are more common than most people realize. One in five Texans experiences a mental health condition in any given year — a higher prevalence rate than our most commonly recognized public health concerns including diabetes, cancer and asthma. In Travis County alone, an estimated 22 percent of residents report poor mental health — approximately 169,000 people — and that’s just adults. Recent reports suggest there are roughly 43,000 children under the age of 18 have or are at risk of having a mental health disorder in Travis County.

That’s why acceptance is an essential component to Liza’s healthy recovery. She had to accept her condition and learn about her illness, as did her family and husband so they could support and challenge her to maintain healthy habits. Liza also had to do what many fear doing: disclose her illness in the workplace.

Telling your employer about a mental illness can be daunting, and many choose not to seek treatment, fearful of being stigmatized in the workplace. Yet, the reality is untreated mental illness can take a heavy toll on workplaces. Depression alone is estimated to cause 200 million lost workdays each year nationally, which costs employers $17 billion to $44 billion annually. In Liza’s case, her willingness to share her mental health challenges has created an office environment in which positive and supportive mental health conversations happen openly and employees are encouraged to seek treatment when they need it.

One of the best ways to create an accepting and supportive environment is by offering opportunities for workplace education which addresses some of the myths and misconceptions about mental health. The local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI Austin, has discovered that the most effective way to change perceptions is to offer information combined with the storytelling of people living with mental illness. When Liza and others have an opportunity to share their story through NAMI Austin’s community education programs, perceptions shift. People find themselves developing a new and positive image of what mental illness can look like when people are living in recovery. It breaks down the barriers that keep people from talking about mental health in the same way they talk about physical health.

Not all people are as fortunate as Liza. They face both the challenge of self-acceptance and the more difficult to attain acceptance in their neighborhoods, places of worship and especially workplaces. In order for people with mental health disorders to live the kind of productive, successful and healthy existence they long for and which benefits the community in which they live, they need an environment that reflects acceptance by providing understanding, resources, support and accommodations. Treatment and recovery work best when they happen openly and not clouded in shame, blame and misunderstanding.

Ranus is the Executive Director of NAMI Austin.

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