When mental illness hits the headlines, it's usually connected to mass shootings or suicides. The focus is on mental illness as the reason for a tragedy, and increases the stigma against an already misunderstood condition, says Mike Keller, executive director of the Independence Center in the Central West End. According to Keller, that kind of negative media exposure has created a human rights emergency.
"We have a battle on our hands to change perceptions about mental illness, said Keller. "The number of disasters that we've had, like Newtown and Columbine, haven't helped except to shine a light on an issue that's been around for a long time. But, unfortunately, the by-product of that visibility is that there's a fear factor."
The Independence Center is a facility that helps St. Louisans with serious mental illnesses re-enter society through a community-centered approach called the clubhouse model. It is currently playing host to more than 600 mental health professionals from 20 countries and 35 states, who have traveled to St. Louis for the 17th Clubhouse International Seminar. Among the main topics of discussion at the seminar is how to combat the stigma associated with mental illness.
Brittny Adams-Jenkins has experienced that stigma first hand. It created a barrier to her getting diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (a combination of schizophrenia symptoms and mood disorder symtoms) and to getting the support and treatment she needed.
"For a long time, I was looked at as being weird. I was ostracized because I was experiencing different issues that I didn't know what it was. Nobody told me that you should get help," said Adams-Jenkins.
A year and a half ago, she became a program participant at Independence Center. "I'd been hearing voices since I was ten years old," she said. "And now I don't hear the voices because I'm now I'm on a good medication regimen and in therapy to deal with those traumatic issues...I feel like my life has just begun."
"The staff there was very helpful and supportive," she added. "They made me feel wanted, appreciated and needed. They didn't ostracize me. They did not look at me like I was less than a person because I was suffering from mental illness. They helped me embrace my mental illness and say just because I have a mental illness, that does not define who I am."
Now, Clubhouse International is seeking to find ways to promote that understanding and acceptance to wider swathes of society.
"Where there is understanding, there is a real shift in attitude," said Mark Lanier, president-elect of the board of directors for Clubhouse International.
The first step: getting the conversation started.
Let's Talk About It Mental Health March and Flash Mob
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
March route: Along Market St. from Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark to Harry's Restaurant & Pub at 23rd St
Flash mob performances: Kiener Plaza and Aloe Plaza across from Union Station