May is National Health Month

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month

By Donna Frake

It's not easy being green, but mental health professionals are hoping people will wear the color to help eliminate the stigma attached to the illness.

The month of May has been designated as National Mental Health Awareness Month and supporters are wearing lime green in an effort to shine a light on the issue and end the shame associated with it.

The effort resulted from a statewide think tank on mental health, led by Rogers InHealth, a statewide coalition of community organizations, called Wisconsin's Initiative for Stigma Elimination (WISE), formed to reduce the stigma of mental illness in our state.

"People were interested in the stigma that was not going away, even though people know more about mental health," explained Sue McKenzie, director of Rogers InHealth, a component of Rogers Hospital created last year to help eliminate stigma through self-empowerment and illuminating recovery by sharing stories of real people who live with a mental illness.

"The thing that works to reduce stigma is to know someone in recovery who is living with mental illness. Recovery is more about decisions we all make to keep ourselves in a healthy state. In addition to medicine and therapy, it's having solid relationships, a job that works for you, a purpose for life, feeling part of a community," and a passion or hobby. "Building lives to be what you want it to be," she explained,

"The way to get there is more than education, it's getting to know people in recovery, so people have less fears and more one-on-one contact.

"Most of us get contact with mental illness through the media when there is a problem," McKenzie said. "People think of depression as the common cold of mental illness, but it can be debilitating.," McKenzie said she wants people with mental health issues to "consider the power of your story."

"One of the things we do at Rogers is provide video interviews with people talking about their illness and their hopes and dreams," to help break down the barrier of shame. Those stories are shared on the Rogers InHealth website.

Through the stories shared by those with mental illness, along with other research, McKenzie said healing and recovery center around the four C's: curiosity, control, competence and connection, which she details on the website.

"Somehow on their path of healing, they cultivated a deep, consistent sense of nonjudgmental curiosity that allowed them to hold their past out and look at it. They moved from judgment to a more constructive curiosity."

The next area allows sufferers to act with the control they realize that they possess.

McKenzie said that the competence factor came from "being in environment where they could do what they were good at, or where people helped them to see the steps going up."

The fourth aspect of the plan deals with connection.

"I love the notion of having a tribe of friends who know you and have been with you in times of doubt, when you have let go of inhibition... times of despair, bad hair and weird clothes, deep discussion and comfortable silence," elements that people have told McKenzie were crucial to their healing.

McKenzie hopes people will take strides during May to help the cause by choosing to wear the green.

The organization opted not to use the more traditional ribbons to raise support. "Ribbons felt more like sympathy; we wanted to project solidarity, hope and recovery. It's a way to promote awareness and curiosity. "The more we're able to see this color and connect with recovery, the more we're able to be supportive for others," she said.