Silencing the shame with a voice for awareness

Spindletop Center’s Heather Champion

Although nearly 20 percent of all American adults experience mental illness in any given year, talking about mental health is still taboo in most circles. And often, in hushed tones, it’s whispered that only “certain” people are affected by mental health issues, but Southeast Texas mental health provider Spindletop Center’s Heather Champion says that’s simply not true.

 “Mental health affects everyone because it includes everyone,” Champion said. “The facts are pretty straightforward. … In the great state of Texas, three out of four people have a friend or family member who has experienced a mental health issue.

 “It’s easy for most folks to think mental illness only means schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. Those only account for a very small percent of the vast majority of diagnoses. It is far more common and likely that you know someone who is dealing with issues of anxiety, post-traumatic stress, mild depression or opioid abuse. And when untreated and undiagnosed, these issues can wage war on an individual, family and community.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the standard classification tool used by professional clinicians in the U.S. for assessing and diagnosing symptoms of mental illness, references “mental illness” as somewhat of a clearinghouse term for many different diagnoses, and the umbrella term sometimes harms those with any of a number of manageable disorders due to over-generalization and misunderstandings.

“It’s important for everyone to understand that there are over 22 different classification categories and hundreds of diagnoses in the current version of the DSM-V,” Champion explained. “Everything from neurocognitive disorders to sleep-wake disorders to trauma and stress-related disorders to substance use disorders (are included). So to lump all folks with a diagnosis into the same category is certainly not appropriate. This type of over-generalization tends to promote stereotypes and stigma – something we at Spindletop Center work very hard to end on a daily basis.”

The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, an organization involved in research and reform efforts to promote effective mental health care solutions for Texas, reports that Texans are particularly turned off by the thought of talking about their mental health.

A Meadows-commissioned survey indicated 88 percent of Texans agree that the stigma surrounding mental health issues needs to be removed — but nine out of 10 still think that it is harder to talk about mental health than physical health issues. The survey also indicated, however, that 74 percent of Texans are confident that more education and information would make them feel more comfortable discussing the topic.

Additionally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that not only are people not talking about their mental health, those with mental illness are routinely not getting the treatment they need. According to information provided by NAMI research through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly 60 percent of all adults with a mental illness didn’t receive mental health services in the previous year, and statistics provided by the National Institute of Mental Health contend that racial minorities are more than twice as likely to not seek mental health treatment.

Keeping mum on mental health issues isn’t doing anyone any favors, Champion argues – and it certainly doesn’t make it go away. Awareness initiatives help the cause, Champion said, by giving people a reason to talk about a topic that’s usually avoided in civilized discourse.

“Awareness initiatives shed light,” she said. “That’s what they are meant to do. Stigmas and stereotypes are created and then fostered by a lack of understanding. For Spindletop Center and similar organizations, Mental Health Awareness Month is a prime opportunity to draw attention to mental health and educate the community so that we can combat the misinformation that exists.”

In Beaumont, several awareness initiatives are taking place this weekend, including the Spindletop Center’s Diamond Minds Gala on May 13. Although tickets are no longer available for the Spindletop event that will honor four Southeast Texas county judges, a free event will also be held Tuesday, May 16, at the Beaumont Event Centre beginning at 11 a.m. for the Mental Health America of Southeast Texas’ Community Launch of the “Okay to Say” campaign. Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute President and CEO Dr. Andy Keller will be there to share his message of de-stigmatization, as will local community leaders who want to encourage dialogue on an issue that has been kept secret far too long while those with mental health needs suffer in silence.

“People are afraid of what they don’t fully understand,” Champion reiterated, underscoring the assertion that opening up lines of communication about mental health is necessary to the well-being of our community. “We want to help free our community of this fear and give them the resources and supports they need to help themselves. Most importantly, awareness is also about giving a voice to our most vulnerable Southeast Texans.”

Without a voice, without a compassionate ear to hear, without accessible medical care, many of our “most vulnerable” end up in jail or on the street, according to research. According to statistics compiled by the Department of Justice and National Institute of Mental Health, about 24 percent of all state prisoners have “a recent history of mental health condition,” and 26 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters report serious mental illness although “serious mental illness” is noted in less than 1 percent of the entire population.

“Criminalizing mental illness is a very slippery slope,” Champion said. “Would you criminalize someone for having cancer?

“While some individuals diagnosed with a mental illness also do commit criminal acts and should be punished appropriately, it is never okay to jail someone simply because of the fact that they have a diagnosis. Unfortunately, the jails across the nation and even in Southeast Texas are filled with inmates who truly need to be in a setting that is conducive to mental health treatment.”

Champion said her organization is working on tackling those dismal statistics locally, partnering with the Jefferson County and Chambers County sheriffs’ offices, and leading a program called ASAP (Assistance, Stabilization and Prevention), aimed at preventing inappropriate incarcerations.

“Our trained clinicians partner up with deputies and perform crisis screening, assessment, intervention and follow-up in the community,” Champion said of the collaborative efforts of the group. “Since we began this program in 2014, the ASAP team has touched 1,030 lives and saved an estimated $3,943,606 (through the end of 2016). We are now working with our local Jefferson County judges to create Mental Health dockets that will streamline the judicial process and help all partners involved better locate those who desperately need treatment – not jail time.

“There’s no quick fix or easy answer, but the more we collaborate with our community partners and work together toward this common goal, the more successful we all become.”

The more collaboration, the better, Champion furthered.

“Everyone in our community plays an important part,” she said, “and it’s very easy to get involved!

“Get to know your friends and neighbors better. So often, we isolate ourselves from others without even realizing it. Then when something bad happens, we have no one to turn to. It’s important to spend time with friends, family and neighbors for the benefit it brings to them and to us.

“Another simple yet effective way to get involved is to volunteer. Did you know that volunteering actually combats symptoms of depression? Seriously! Volunteer your time to an organization like Spindletop Center and learn more about the wonderful programs and services already going on right here in your back yard.

“You will be amazed. You will be educated. And then you will be an advocate!”

For more information on the Spindletop Center, its services, or how to be of service, call (409) 839-2200. For more information about the May 16 “Okay to Say” event in Beaumont, e-mail mhasetx [at] gmail [dot] com. More information about the Meadows initiative can be found on the organization’s website at