Table Talk: Healing conversations about mental health

One in five Americans lives with a mental illness during a given year.

By Mark Schmeltzer

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. While few would consider themselves unaware of the existence of mental illness and addictions, many still carry misconceptions. Stereotypes about mental health are often fueled by popular culture. Images in movies, television, even advertising function as shorthand to communicate realities that are vastly more complicated.

For example, depression may be depicted in an advertisement as a woman in a bathrobe, gazing fretfully out a rainy window. Schizophrenia may be caricatured on television as a disheveled man muttering angrily to himself. And addiction is often portrayed as a broken and emaciated derelict lying unconscious in an alley.

These images filter into our own perceptions and conversations about mental illness and addiction. But not only are these words and images inaccurate, they are ultimately damaging. Rarely free of judgement, the ways we think and talk about mental illness and addiction add to stigma—a very real and significant social barrier to effective mental healthcare. Stigma is a major factor in preventing about two-thirds of Americans with symptoms of mental and substance-abuse disorders from receiving any treatment at all for their conditions. In addition to the human toll, the cost to American businesses ranges from $80 to $100 billion annually.

Yet mental illness and addictions are manageable. Treatment is shown to be effective in helping people realize their potential to succeed and contribute.

Opening doors for Americans with mental health issues to access opportunity and prosperity was the vision laid out to Congress by President John F. Kennedy in February 1963. His speech was considered an opening salvo in the battle against the stigma of brain-based illnesses and the beginning of a movement to provide more mental-health treatment and support.

“Most of the major diseases of the body are beginning to give ground in man’s increasing struggle to find their cause and cure,” the President said. “But the public understanding, treatment and prevention of mental disabilities have not made comparable progress since the earliest days of modern history.”

A few weeks before his assassination that same year, he signed his last piece of legislation in the Community Mental Health Act. Fifty years later, his nephew, former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy, would found the Kennedy Forum to build on the initial promise of that law.

The Kennedy Forum advocates for equity in funding for mental health and other remedies to our country’s crisis of untreated mental health problems. But a core component of the project remains the goal of changing the way our culture views those with mental health challenges, removing the stigma that deters people from getting the help they need to live their best lives.

In November 2014, Peter O’Brien, Sr., who operates MADO Healthcare, a family-owned behavioral and physical healthcare provider in Chicago, sought Patrick Kennedy’s help in establishing an Illinois affiliate of the Forum. The Kennedy Forum of Illinois is currently the only state-based member of the national organization. Its Leadership Council brings together some of the most influential figures in the state’s business and civic life to promote awareness through the media and advocate for research and improved access to mental healthcare. The Forum works with partners to identify and implement solutions in six focus areas where stigma hits home: in the workplace, schools, the justice system, families, healthcare practice and veterans.

Mercy Home for Boys & Girls’ President Fr. Scott Donahue, who was appointed by Cardinal Blase Cupich as the Chicago Archdiocese’s liaison to the Kennedy Forum (both serve on its Leadership Council), described the work of addressing mental health in Gospel terms. “Jesus reached out to those in His own time who were marginalized, who were, in fact, stigmatized,” Donahue said. “The poor, the hungry, the sick. But today, as then, He calls us to extend His mercy and understanding to those who are struggling, and that certainly includes those who have a mental illness or an addiction.”

Like the national organization, The Kennedy Forum of Illinois advocates for specific solutions like funding and legislation, but it also brings people together in constructive conversation. It is through these conversations that we can learn to view mental illness through the same lens that we view cancer or heart disease. And talking about mental illness will help make mental health stigma a relic of the past.
At its most recent annual conference in January, for example, Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps shared his own story about his depression and how he contemplated suicide during the height of his success. Thankfully, Phelps said, he sought the help that saved his life before making it his personal mission to inspire others with brain diseases.

At a breakfast in March, part of its Mind Matters speaker series, a panel of mental health advocates addressed the role that the media play in perpetuating stereotypes, and ways that the reporters and journalism students in attendance could help shape the public narrative about mental illness and addiction.

And this month, on May 8, together with the Chicago Community Trust, the Kennedy Forum is inviting people throughout the area to gather in small groups to discuss topics related to mental illness and addiction in their community, workplace or home. The outcome of these On the Table discussions will be to fight stigma, generate new ideas, and encourage action.

For more information about the Kennedy Forum’s work or for help in organizing your own On the Table discussion on May 8, visit

Mark Schmeltzer is a Chicago-based writer
who works in non-profit communications.


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