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Achieving Acceptance: Overcoming Stigma on the Path to Mental Health

May 29, 2018 | By Jeff St. Clair

One out of five Americans, this year, will experience a mental health disorder.

Yet, for all its prevalence, many people dealing with mental health crises still face stigma and shame.

In the first installment of our series “Navigating the Path to Mental Health,” WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair brings us the stories of four people fighting the stigma.

Jerry Dusa is a professional musician with a lifelong love of electronics. He began studying electrical engineering at Cleveland State University in 1976, when something hit him.

“It’s a pain,” says Dusa, “this darkness, this gloom. You can’t get any good thoughts in your head, everything’s negative, you’re struggling.”

Dusa’s life quickly became unbearable.

He eventually visitied a campus clinic where a doctor perscribed medication for severe depression.

“I two plans to end my life. I told him one and I had another.”

“The next day, kind of gruesome what I tried to do,” says Dusa, “I tried to electrocute myself, which is really horrible.”

The pain was excruciating, he says, with 6,000 volts surging through him,”My whole body was on fire.”

“I really wasn’t in my right mind. … It’s a miracle that I’m here. It’s a blessing.”

Acceptance Trailblazer
Dusa finished school and worked as an electrical technician until maintaining his mental health became his full-time job. He now volunteers at clinics, nursing homes, and mental health events, sharing his music and story of recovery.

“It takes time. It’s really a challenge. I fall through the cracks even. But awareness is really important.”

Dusa says the stigma surrounding mental illness is often erased when people meet face to face and confront their fears.

“It’s a matter of not understanding,” he says, “and a lot of people that are struggling with mental health challenges would really benefit from talking to people and making friends.”

“I’m still in recovery, and that’s over 40 years now,” says Dusa.

Jerry Dusa received a 2017 Trailblazer award from the Summit County ADM Boardfor his outreach to others struggling with mental health issues and for serving the healthcare community.

Peel Dem Layers Back
Cleveland rap artist Archie Green also uses music to get his message across.

“As an artist, it’s our job to be authentic, to tell our truth.”

“That’s part of the reason why I’m using hip-hop as a vehicle to start the conversation,” says Green.

In 2014, Green was diagnosed with clinical depression. He deals with it through therapy and creativity. His song, “Layers,” reveals his struggle with mental illness and charts his path to recovery. In 2016, he launched his “Peel Dem Layers Back”initiative, using hip-hop to break down barriers to mental health awareness.

“One of the stigmas of mental illness is that you’re a weak individual, ” says Green. “No, you’re not a weak individual; this is part of how your mind is made up, it’s part of your mental condition. That’s not you. What you’re going through, what brings you down, that’s not you.”

He says being open about mental health struggles usually doesn’t engender much sympathy.

“People will tell you to ‘stiffen up your lip, it ain’t that bad. Stop crying; be a man.’”

“Realistically speaking,” says Green, “you can’t be a black male in America without dealing with some form of depression.”

Green says you need to defend yourself against depression, or “it will kill you.”

“This is warfare,” says Green.

“The type of work I’m doing as a mental-health advocate, and others, we’re supplying the tools, the artillery, to fight against this monster called depression, or anxiety, or bi-polar disorder.”

“I’m going to empower myself and empower the world with what I’ve learned, how I’ve learned to live with this condition,” says Green, “because at the end of the day we’re all in this thing together.  Period.”

Honest, Open, Proud
Patrick Corrigan is a leader in stigma research.

He’s also a psychology professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology and director of Honest, Open, Proud, a nationwide program that helps people with mental illness find ways to safely ‘come out’ as mentally ill.

“So I should begin by saying I’ve written a book called Coming Out Proud: Stories and Essays of Solidarity, and the first story is mine.”

“I am a person who’s been diagnosed with serious mental illness, bi-polar disorder, generalized anxiety, major depression. I’ve been hospitalized for it. I took my pills this morning. So coming out is a personal thing, not just a research thing for me.”

He defines stigma as the degree to which the community views people with mental illness as broken or dangerous. It often leads to discrimination in hiring and social isolation.

Corrigan has found that education is not the best way to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Instead, he points to the dramatic changes in how homosexuality is viewed as a model for improving acceptance of people with mental illness.

He says kids today may learn that being gay is genetic, but that doesn’t necessarily reduce stigma.

What does is, “By the time they got to health class they found they may have two gay uncles, or a gay minister. Heck, by the time they got to high school they had these wonderful gay flags all around, and people came out.”

Corrigan’s research shows that, “the degree to which the average person interacts with a person with mental illness and recovery who is out, is the degree to which it changes stigma.”

Essentially, he says, the more we interact with people who are out as mentally ill, the less stigma we’ll have.

The Nightingale Project
At this year’s State of the State address, Gov. John Kasich named Kent State University freshman Nina Schubert as one of the winners of this year’s Courage Award.

“She’s struggled with mental illness and eating disorders throughout her lifetime,” Kasich said in his speech.

“I lost my father when I was nine,” says Schubert, “that was the first major thing that caused mental illness in me.”

As an adolescent, Schubert struggled with body image, anxiety and depression.

At Kent State she started the Nightingale Project to encourage students with similar issues to come together for support. It’s similar to what chapters of Active Minds are doing on other college campuses.

“We work to make people feel loved,” says Schubert. “The main goal is that people don’t feel scared to talk about their mental health; they don’t feel scared to ask for help.”

In giving her his Courage Award, Kasich said, “She’s an inspiring example of leadership at a young age on such a difficult issue.”

Schubert is open about her path to recovery.

“I work with my treatment team every day. I see a therapist weekly. I take medications. I do whatever I need to do to benefit my mental health.”

“Everyone is beautiful in their own way,” says Schubert, “and I think that’s why I work so much with self-love because I’ve realized how much good has come out of it and how much happier I am since I chose loving myself instead of pleasing others.”

Nina Schubert, Patrick Corrigan, Archie Green, Jerry Dusa, all of them had the courage to share their stories on the path to acceptance.

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