doctor looking at an athlete
By IHPL - April 23, 2018

“Everyone is going through something that we can’t see.” – Kevin Love

In early March, Kevin Love, a professional basketball player, released an article about a panic attack he experienced on the court during a game against the Hawks team. His article spoke to the core issue of stigmatization being the barrier to seeking help.1 The timing of this article is critical as mental health has been the focus of many lawmakers. The idea that something needs to be done to address mental health seems to resurface every time there is a mass act of violence, further perpetuating the stigma that unmanaged mental health leads to violence.2 Love’s article reminds the public that mental health is an integral part of our overall health and that society should encourage people to seek care.

Part of the reason there may be such a stigma is in the way that we define mental health. Until recently, I thought of mental health as being free from mental diseases; either you had some form of mental illness, or you did not. The data seemed to support this notion as the prevalence of mental illness among US adults was estimated to be around 18 percent according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).3 It was not until I came across the definition provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) that I realized that poor mental health can affect all of us. The WHO defines mental health as the “subjective well-being, perceived self-efficacy, autonomy, competence, inter-generational dependence, and self-actualization of one’s intellectual and emotional potential, among others.”4

Stresses from work can be a major cause of disruption in mental well-being. Physician burnout, a public health epidemic, has led to depression and depersonalization in close to half of the physicians in the country.5 Additionally, even one traumatic event can lead to a myriad of other health conditions if left untreated. This means that if one is suffering from a stressful situation, such as the loss of a family member, the uncertainty of being able to afford rent, or even the extreme dissatisfaction from one’s job, one’s mental health is being affected. At any given point in time, this could be almost anybody.

Dr. Christopher Lane, a professor at Northwestern University, brought up an important point that should be addressed. In an article in Psychology Today he talked about how the expansion of our definition of mental health has contributed to the over-prescription of medications.6 Through using words such as “positive functioning,” “equilibrium” and “internal/external harmony,” he believes we may be creating an idealism that causes people to feel unhealthy if they do not achieve it. This can further add to the stigma of seeking help. Thus, we should take heed of the warning that our definition of mental health should not create an idealistic view of good mental health.

This brings us back to Kevin Love’s article because he makes this exact point. While it is true that happiness and well-being are subjective measures that cannot always be attained, we should still encourage others to understand that feelings of sadness and anger are normal. It is not that we do not need to feel sad or angry, but that if these feelings persist, there is nothing wrong with seeking therapy or even guidance from the people around us.  

It was this understanding that attracted me to Loma Linda University (LLU). Loma Linda has long been regarded as one of the five “Blue Zones” with one of the longest life expectancies in the world. Of course, the values of fitness and healthy eating have long been a part of the heritage, but there is a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of mental, spiritual and physical health that promotes well-being.7 During our day-long orientation, the speakers (including the president of Loma Linda University, Dr. Richard Hart) helped us realize the importance of mental well-being as it impacts our own work as well as the services we provide to those around us. The institution provides free therapy appointments for all employees to encourage them to find somebody to talk to.

By embodying this culture and making it an organizational goal, or even a state-level goal, to ensure well-being for all members, we may be able to remove the stigma from mental health.

Saying this, however, reminds me that while health is a basic human right, the provision of health care is not. Therefore, while we work to destigmatize asking for help, we must also work to ensure affordable access to providers for all people who seek it.

Author bio and photograph:

Priya Vedula is a health policy analyst at the Institute for Health Policy and Leadership. Her work involves examining health policies and regulations with a focus on oral health, mental/behavioral health, and hunger. She received her Master of Public Health degree from Columbia University.