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Let's Change the Conversation Around Mental Health

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THE WHITE HOUSE
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Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge has been a passionate voice on so many important issues, and I'm grateful that she is using her day as Guest Editor to shine a bright light on mental health, particularly children's mental health, and on the tens of millions of people who suffer in silence - people like Ryan Rigdon.

Ryan joined the Navy when he was 20 years old, and he was deployed to Iraq for the first time a few years later. He served on a team that disarmed roadside bombs and IEDs, and when those bombs exploded, they would rush to the scene to clear any remaining explosives while sorting through unimaginable wreckage and carnage. In recognition of his incredible valour, Ryan was awarded a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal.

But when Ryan returned home to his wife and two young daughters after his second deployment, the war stayed with him. He had constant splitting headaches, nightmares and panic attacks, and his ears just wouldn't stop ringing. He would pace his home at night, worried that his family was in danger. One evening, he finally hit rock bottom. After laying awake in bed crying, he got up, headed to the bathroom, and prepared to take his own life.

Through my work with service members and veterans as part of Joining Forces - the initiative Dr Jill Biden and I launched to rally Americans to honour and support our veterans and military families - I've seen that Ryan's experience isn't unique. Like Ryan, some of our heroes on the battlefield struggle with the wounds of war - both visible and invisible - when they come home, but hesitate to ask for help.

Of course, it's important to remember that most of our veterans don't experience any mental health challenges at all.

But the veterans and service members who do struggle are not alone - not by a long shot. In fact, roughly one in five adults - more than 40 million Americans - suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition like depression or anxiety. These conditions affect people of every age and every background: our kids and grandparents, our friends and neighbours.

Sadly, too often, the stigma around mental health prevents people who need help from seeking it. But that simply doesn't make any sense. Whether an illness affects your heart, your arm or your brain, it's still an illness, and there shouldn't be any distinction. We would never tell someone with a broken leg that they should stop wallowing and get it together. We don't consider taking medication for an ear infection something to be ashamed of. We shouldn't treat mental health conditions any differently. Instead, we should make it clear that getting help isn't a sign of weakness - it's a sign of strength - and we should ensure that people can get the treatment they need.

That's why the Affordable Care Act expanded mental health and substance use disorder benefits and parity protections for more than 60 million Americans and required new plans to cover depression screenings for adults and behavioral assessments for kids.

That's also why my husband put more mental health counsellors in place for veterans and signed a bill to help prevent veteran suicide.

And that's why, last year, we worked with an organisation called Give an Hour and a coalition of other partners to launch the Campaign to Change Direction to raise awareness about mental health, give people tools to help those in need, and change the conversation about mental health in this country. This campaign includes leaders from every sector: business, government, nonprofits, medicine, education, the faith community and so many others.

As part of this effort, we released a list of Five Signs to help people recognise when someone needs help. Signs like agitation, withdrawal, hopelessness, a decline in personal care and a change in personality can be indications that someone is dealing with a mental-health issue. By recognising these signs, we can help the people we know get the help they need before it's too late.

That brings me back to Ryan. Thankfully, Ryan didn't end his life that night. Instead, he summoned the courage to tell a co-worker that he needed help. They reached out to the local VA [US Department of Veterans Affairs], and Ryan got the medication and counselling he needed to start getting better.

Just as people in Ryan's community stepped up for him, we need to step up for people in our lives. We need to learn to identify the signs of mental-health issues. We need to have the courage to reach out and have tough conversations with our friends and family members -- and get help ourselves when we need it. And we need to recognise that our mental health is just as important as our physical health, and start treating it that way.

Visit www.changedirection.org to learn the Five Signs and find out how you can join this movement.

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Credit: www.changedirection.org.

Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com

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