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Another Voice: Changing the way we talk about mental illness

Another Voice: Changing the way we talk about mental illness

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By Michael Cummings

and Max Donatelli

If you think talking about mental illness is scary, imagine if we didn’t talk. Sixteen local organizations have formed a coalition to start a conversation about mental illness. The Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition was created to help reduce or eliminate the stigma associated with having a mental illness.

According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, 1 in 5 people have a mental illness. Unfortunately, because of the discrimination against people with mental illness, too many individuals choose to keep this a secret. If a person has diabetes, a broken leg or cancer, most will share this with family and friends, and even co-workers. This is because there is no societal blame associated with having one of these medical conditions.

Why should having depression, bipolar disorder or other mental health conditions be any different? Myths that permeate our beliefs, our social media and our everyday language are ingrained in our culture.

These untruths are often perceived as blame to those having a mental health diagnosis. The Anti-Stigma Coalition exists to share the truths about mental illness and to help start an honest community conversation about mental illness.

Mental illnesses, like all medical conditions, stem from biological and genetic irregularities that are complicated by environmental, financial and social stressors. Many people struggling with a mental health condition have also experienced trauma throughout their lives. You are very unlikely to hear a person say, “I am cancer.” In fact, you are more likely to hear one say, “my cancer doesn’t define me.”

Conversely, the phrase “I am bipolar” is heard all too often. We must stop defining our loved ones, our neighbors, our colleagues and ourselves by a mental health diagnosis. With the appropriate treatment and supports, mental illness can be managed in the same way that medical illnesses are. Recovery can and does happen every day.

The Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition has created a campaign to start a conversation about mental illness. We invite you to visit to hear the stories, myths and facts, and to obtain useful resources. We invite you to take the pledge to stop the stigma and become a member.

Members will receive regular updates as the campaign progresses. We want our community to be able to talk about mental illness in the same way people talk about any medical condition. Join the conversation about mental illness and you will learn that it doesn’t have to be a secret, you can get help and recovery is possible!

Michael Cummings, M.D., is associate medical director at Erie County Medical Center. Max Donatelli is chairman of the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition and a retired administrator at Baker Victory Services.

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