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They Are Us

If the last two years have shown us anything it has shown us how resilient we are. It has also reminded us all just how vulnerable we can be. These are two important truths that are too often overlooked, forgotten, or denied. As we strive to build mental health awareness in our communities, it is more important than ever for us as leaders to be especially aware of these truths for, even though we appear to be healing from the pandemic’s threat to our physical well-being (hopefully), we remain vulnerable to its wide-reaching impact upon our mental health and well-being now and into the future. And this should not be overlooked, forgotten, or denied – too much is riding on it.

A young woman showing empathy for her friend

As leaders, we must be continually taking the temperature of our communities asking how we got here, what are today’s most pressing challenges, and where are we headed. When it comes to understanding the mental health challenges in a community, things get complicated pretty quickly because most don’t want to think or talk about it because it’s too uncomfortable and it cuts too close. As a society we seem to have made a secret agreement that mental health challenges happen to someone else and somehow believe that what we ignore will go away. In case you haven’t noticed, this doesn’t work even a little bit.

Most have heard by now the startling statistic that 1 in 5 will experience a diagnosable mental health condition in a given year. That likely means that someone in your immediate sphere – a friend, a loved one, a family member, a co-worker – is struggling right now and you may not even know it. But actually, you can and you should know it. And as leaders we must know it.

In order to steer the ship through choppy waters, and it doesn’t get choppier than a global pandemic, we must recognize that the largest obstacle to effectively addressing the mental health challenges in our communities is not funding, it is stigma. Stigma leads us to overlook, forget, and deny the pain and suffering of our fellow community members. And most damagingly, it encourages us in our belief that mental health challenges happen to someone other than to us; it happens to “them.”

The truth is that mental health challenges are insidious and they do not discriminate. Mental health challenges exist on a continuum for ALL OF US. To think otherwise leads us to diminish the reality of those we know and love. It leads us to demonize individuals when they are at their most vulnerable. And it denies a central truth about our human condition; life is hard, we all struggle at times and these struggles exist on a continuum. Some struggle more acutely than others, some struggle more chronically than others, and some struggle less than others, but we all struggle at times in our lives.

“Us/them” thinking is at the core of many of the societal challenges we face today and it is most certainly at the core of the problem of mental health stigma. The remedy, needed more than ever as we begin to emerge from the pandemic (hopefully) and begin to face the mental health aftermath, is striving each day to see yourself in “the other,” seeing the common struggles, seeing the continuum that we are all on. Last I checked, this was the definition of empathy; a good thing to consider as we strive to build mental health awareness in our communities.

Dr. Stephen J. Giordano, PhD, is Commissioner, Director of Community Services, Albany County Department of Mental Health. Dr. Giordano can be reached at stephen.giordano@albanycountyny.gov.

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