Achieving Acceptance: Overcoming Stigma on the Path to Mental Health

May 29, 2018

One out of five Americans, this year, will experience a mental health disorder.

Yet, for all its prevalence, many people dealing with mental health crises still face stigma and shame.

In the first installment of our series “Navigating the Path to Mental Health,”  WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair brings us the stories of four people fighting the stigma.

Jerry Dusa is a professional musician with a lifelong love of electronics. He began studying electrical engineering at Cleveland State University in 1976, when something hit him.

“It’s a pain," says Dusa, "this darkness, this gloom. You can’t get any good thoughts in your head, everything’s negative, you’re struggling."

Dusa's life quickly became unbearable.

He eventually visited a campus clinic where a doctor prescribed medication for severe depression.

"I had two plans to end my life. I told him one and I had another.”

“The next day, kind of gruesome what I tried to do," says Dusa, "I tried to electrocute myself, which is really horrible.”

The pain was excruciating, he says, with 6,000 volts surging through him, "My whole body was on fire."

"I really wasn’t in my right mind. ... It’s a miracle that I’m here. It’s a blessing.”

Acceptance Trailblazer
Dusa finished school and worked as an electrical technician until maintaining his mental health became his full-time job. He now volunteers at clinics, nursing homes, and mental health events, sharing his music and story of recovery.

Jerry Dusa lives in Akron, where as a professional musician, he volunteers as a mental health advocate. He was recognized in 2017 with a Trailblazer award from the Summit Count ADM Board.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

“It takes time. It’s really a challenge. I fall through the cracks even. But awareness is really important.”

Dusa says the stigma surrounding mental illness is often erased when people meet face to face and confront their fears.   

“It’s a matter of not understanding," he says, "and a lot of people that are struggling with mental health challenges would really benefit from talking to people and making friends.”

“I’m still in recovery, and that’s over 40 years now," says Dusa.

Jerry Dusa received a 2017 Trailblazer award from the Summit County ADM Board for his outreach to others struggling with mental health issues and for serving the healthcare community.

Peel Dem Layers Back
Cleveland rap artist Archie Green also uses music to get his message across.

“As an artist, it’s our job to be authentic, to tell our truth.”

“That’s part of the reason why I’m using hip-hop as a vehicle to start the conversation,” says Green.

In 2014, Green was diagnosed with clinical depression. He deals with it through therapy and creativity. His song, "Layers," reveals his struggle with mental illness and charts his path to recovery. In 2016, he launched his "Peel Dem Layers Back" initiative, using hip-hop to break down barriers to mental health awareness.

Archie Green is a Cleveland area rap artist and founder of the Peel Dem Layers Back initiative which uses hip-hop to convene conversations around mental health issues.
Credit ARCHIE GREEN

“One of the stigmas of mental illness is that you’re a weak individual, " says Green. "No, you’re not a weak individual; this is part of how your mind is made up, it’s part of your mental condition. That’s not you. What you’re going through, what brings you down, that’s not you.”

He says being open about mental health struggles usually doesn't engender much sympathy.

“People will tell you to 'stiffen up your lip, it ain’t that bad. Stop crying; be a man.'”

“Realistically speaking," says Green, "you can’t be a black male in America without dealing with some form of depression.”

The number of persons of color that I've lost personally - friends, family members, acquaintances - I know that if they knew the benefits of mental health [treatment], whether you're going to a therapist, or can talk to anyone about what's going on, that can save someone's life.

Green says you need to defend yourself against depression, or "it will kill you.”

“This is warfare," says Green.

"The type of work I’m doing as a mental-health advocate, and others, we’re supplying the tools, the artillery, to fight against this monster called depression, or anxiety, or bi-polar disorder.”

“I’m going to empower myself and empower the world with what I’ve learned, how I’ve learned to live with this condition," says Green, "because at the end of the day we’re all in this thing together.  Period.”

Honest, Open, Proud
Patrick Corrigan is a leader in stigma research.

He’s also a psychology professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology and director of Honest, Open, Proud, a nationwide program that helps people with mental illness find ways to safely ‘come out’ as mentally ill.

“So I should begin by saying I’ve written a book called Coming Out Proud: Stories and Essays of Solidarity, and the first story is mine.”

“I am a person who’s been diagnosed with serious mental illness, bi-polar disorder, generalized anxiety, major depression. I’ve been hospitalized for it. I took my pills this morning. So coming out is a personal thing, not just a research thing for me.”

He defines stigma as the degree to which the community views people with mental illness as broken or dangerous. It often leads to discrimination in hiring and social isolation.

Corrigan has found that education is not the best way to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Instead, he points to the dramatic changes in how homosexuality is viewed as a model for improving acceptance of people with mental illness. 

He says kids today may learn that being gay is genetic, but that doesn't necessarily reduce stigma.

What does is, "By the time they got to health class they found they may have two gay uncles, or a gay minister. Heck, by the time they got to high school they had these wonderful gay flags all around, and people came out.”

Corrigan's research shows that, "the degree to which the average person interacts with a person with mental illness and recovery who is out, is the degree to which it changes stigma.”

Essentially, he says, the more we interact with people who are out as mentally ill, the less stigma we’ll have.

The Nightingale Project
At this year’s State of the State address, Gov. John Kasich named Kent State University freshman Nina Schubert as one of the winners of this year's Courage Award.

“She’s struggled with mental illness and eating disorders throughout her lifetime,” Kasich said in his speech.

“I lost my father when I was nine," says Schubert, "that was the first major thing that caused mental illness in me.”

Nina Schubert as a Kent State University freshman founded The Nightingale Project to provide support to students struggling with mental illness. She's open about her recovery, which includes Aimee, her companion dog.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

As an adolescent, Schubert struggled with body image, anxiety and depression.  

At Kent State she started the Nightingale Project to encourage students with similar issues to come together for support. It's similar to what chapters of Active Minds are doing on other college campuses.

"We work to make people feel loved," says Schubert. "The main goal is that people don’t feel scared to talk about their mental health; they don’t feel scared to ask for help.”

In giving her his Courage Award, Kasich said, “She’s an inspiring example of leadership at a young age on such a difficult issue.”

Schubert is open about her path to recovery. 

“I work with my treatment team every day. I see a therapist weekly. I take medications. I do whatever I need to do to benefit my mental health.”

“Everyone is beautiful in their own way," says Schubert, "and I think that’s why I work so much with self-love because I’ve realized how much good has come out of it and how much happier I am since I chose loving myself instead of pleasing others.”

Nina Schubert, Patrick Corrigan, Archie Green, Jerry Dusa, all of them had the courage to share their stories on the path to acceptance.

The WKSU series: “Navigating the Path to Mental Health"

Part I (May 29): Achieving Acceptance: Overcoming Stigma on the Path to Mental Health. One out of five Americans, this year, will experience a mental health disorder. Yet, for all its prevalence, many people dealing with mental health crises still face stigma and shame.

  

Part II (June 4): Mental-health care can be hard to access in much of Ohio, especially away from the larger cities. This installment looks at the challenges along the way to finding and getting mental-health services.

Part III (June 11): Mental-health treatment evolves through meds, mindfulness and motivational interviewing.

Part IV (June 18): Mental-health treatment can be expensive, and the financial incentives may be a barrier, rather than incentive. 

Part V (June 25): Police and the courts are increasingly on the front-line of mental-health care, and are getting better training to do it. 

Part VI (July 3): Pink-slipped, a personal story

Join us June 27 for a community forum on mental health at the Akron-Summit County Public Library  at 7 p.m.