Removing mental illness from the shadows

By SUZANNE LAURENT

Published Foster’s Daily Democrat 5/12/2016

Nearly one in every five people, or 42.5 million Americans, has a diagnosable mental health condition. Yet, they or those closest to them may not recognize the symptoms that could lead to help.

“Mental illness remains in the shadows and away from the public square,” said John Broderick, a former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

Broderick is co-chairing a new initiative called Change Direction New Hampshire with Peter Evers, the executive director of Riverbend Community Mental Health, which has several locations around and north of Concord.

The initiative highlights a simple pledge that anyone can do. That is to learn the five signs of emotional suffering so someone can recognize them in him or her self or help a loved one who may be in emotional pain.

They are a change in personality, agitation, withdrawal, decline in personal care and hopelessness.

“People are so uncomfortable talking about mental illness,” he said. “Going back to 1957, people would not talk openly about breast cancer, and now there are signature events to raise awareness with the signature pink color.”

Change Direction New Hampshire is the brainchild of Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, a child psychologist based in Maryland. Van Dahlen made Time Magazine’s 100 List in 2012 for her work in establishing Give an Hour.

That program asked psychologists and psychiatrists from across the country to donate at least an hour of their time to assist a veteran or a veteran’s family member with mental health issues. It has enjoyed much success and is in full operation.

“I was asked to speak to Barbara last fall by Bill Gunn, who is head of behavioral health at Concord Hospital and a good friend of Barbara’s husband,” Broderick said. “Barbara told me of her commitment to Change Direction and her interest in expanding it nationwide.”

Van Dahlen wanted New Hampshire to be the first statewide effort. The Change Direction campaign is non-political. Its goal is simple, practical, achievable and powerful — to make the five most common signs of mental illness/ emotional suffering as wide and well-known as the signs of a heart attack or stroke.

“Knowing the five signs is particularly important when you consider that half of all mental illness arises by age 14 and two-thirds by age 24,” Broderick said. “Most often those suffering with a mental illness are the last to know.”

Parents, teachers, siblings, friends, coaches, relatives, employers, co-workers and others need to know the signs in order to help and, in many cases, the mentally ill might find themselves in the signs.

The Change Direction New Hampshire campaign is an effort to improve public awareness and understanding with a goal of helping get people to effective treatment. Early diagnosis and early treatment often improve outcomes.

Change Direction New Hampshire will be asking the public and private sectors to partner with it “to get the word out.” Literature (including posters) and information should be widely and readily available.

“We will be doing public service announcement with N.H. voices and faces,” Broderick said.

Change Direction will be hosting five to six mental health forums throughout the state during the next year.

“We want to attract the medical and behavioral health community, but we will be reaching for a cross-section of the lay community,” Broderick said. “Part of our effort will be geared to changing the culture surrounding mental health in New Hampshire. We need to remove the needless shame and stigma from mental health and emotional suffering that so often causes the afflicted and their families to avoid treatment.”

Sponsors to date include Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Elliot Hospital, Riverbend Community Mental Health Center, Catholic Medical Center, Southern N.H. Medical Center, Lakes Region General Hospital, Concord Hospital, Wentworth-Douglass Hospital, Northeast Delta Dental and former Gov. Craig Benson. Media partners are NH1( Binnie Media) WMUR-TV and WGIR radio.

The Change Direction New Hampshire campaign will be launched in Representatives Hall at the Statehouse at 10 a.m. Monday, May 23. The speaker of the House will open the proceedings.

“We will be joined by Gov. Maggie Hassan and the entire N.H. congressional delegation hopes to be with us along with our distinguished steering committee,” Broderick said.

A VIP reception will follow. The launch is open to the public at no cost.

Broderick will also be speaking about Change Direction during the Portsmouth City Council meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, May 16, at City Hall.

Visit www.changedirection.org to learn about the campaign.