Breaking Down Stigma and Building Awareness Around Mental Health

Mental illness is common. Nearly one in five Americans have mental illness. Clint Thurgood, director of Crisis Service at Intermountain Healthcare talks about why it’s important to talk openly about our mental health and how we can work together to overcome the stigma around mental health.


Transcript has been edited slightly for readability.

Interviewer: May is Mental Health Awareness month, and today, we're going to be having a conversation around stigma with Clint Thurgood, Crisis Service Director, Behavioral Health Clinical Program at Intermountain Healthcare. During the month of May, we're going to be sharing a variety of resources available to the community around mental health, and we'll be having more live conversations with experts on varying topics. Clint, thank you so much for joining us. It's nice to have you back. I'd love to talk and start this conversation around the importance of Mental Health Awareness Month. Why do we have this month to being with?

Clint Thurgood: This month has been around since 1949. The month of May has been set aside for a month of awareness of mental health issues, and I think it's important to have such a month, as research suggests that as many as one in five Americans suffer or lives with some form of mental illness, some form of serious mental illness. It’s likely people watching this might have experienced mental illness or they know someone that they love and they care for with mental illness. The purpose of Mental Health Month or Mental Health Awareness Month is to bring awareness to the subject and let people know where they can go for services, and mostly that they're not alone, that there is hope that people with mental illness can live a fulfilling life and to be inspired to seek care when necessary.

Interviewer: We often hear the two terms: mental health and physical health and sometimes they're interchanged about what's more important than the other when really, they're equally important. How can the two impact each other if you're feeling low in one versus the other?

Clint Thurgood: The World Health Organization said it best when they defined health as a complete state of physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and not just the absence of infirmity or a disease. I think that really speaks volumes that we're talking about someone's wellbeing. It's not separating physical health from social health from mental health. They all impact one another. We know that people who have poor mental health, tend to not take very good care of themselves physically. And vice versa, those who experience poor physical health are at greater risk of developing some sort of mental illness, whether that be anxiety, depression, or something more significant.

The other day, I was watching a video on the National Alliance on Mental Illness website, where there are a lot of wonderful resources. I was watching a campaign called, “You're Not Alone”, and I watched this one video that has really resonated with me since then. It was about a gentleman who works in a 911 call center. And not so long ago, he took a phone call from a mother who was in distress because she was taking care of a child and the child stopped breathing. And she was very panicked and she called them on the phone, and for six minutes, he tried to walk her through how to revive the infant and give life-saving measures.

Unfortunately, the infant still passed away, but the gentleman who took the phone call, what had occurred began to impact other parts of his life. He began to fear the telephone call for fear that he didn't know how to respond to the next person who called. He wasn't able to sleep. He didn't have desire to eat, so he had some weight loss and he neglected other parts of his life. I think that's a very good scenario to help people understand that things that happen in a day can impact your mental health, which can impact your physical health, and vice versa.

Interviewer: Are there ways to start noticing things in yourself that are changing because of maybe a mental or physical health problem that you're experiencing? Is there something that you can do to kind of check in with yourself over this last year and say, "Okay, these things have kind of changed with my routine and habits. I should maybe seek some resources or try to do something to change my perspective”?

Clint Thurgood: That reminds me of what I talked about last year, and I remember mentioning the words, “a new normal”, and that's the word that we've heard many times since then. I think we should be checking in with ourselves daily regarding things that we enjoy doing and things that make us feel like we've got a fulfilling life.

Just yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet with my primary care physician regarding a physical need. And during the process of that visit, he asked me if I still enjoy taking time for myself, if I still have an interest in these things, my finding joy throughout the day, or am I finding myself feeling less happy? That's a question that we should ask ourselves on a daily basis: “What's happening around me? Is it impacting my ability to function as a father, as a spouse, as a wife, as a neighbor, as a friend?” And if the answer is, "I'm not sure. I think I might not be doing so well," that might be a sign that you need to reach out, or you need to speak with someone about what you're feeling.

And recognizing that what you're feeling is okay, is part of it too, and it's okay to feel that way. It's an emotion. It's not a life-sentence. It's an emotion that you might be experiencing, and so it's okay to reach out and to talk to someone about what you're experiencing in that moment.

Interviewer: There’s a lot of stigma around mental health and having a conversation with yourself or with others. Why does that exist? Why are people worried to talk about mental health in different scenarios?

Clint Thurgood: Well, I think for mental health, there's been some folks who have believed that mental illness is a sign of weakness, or it’s a character flaw, and that it's something that somebody should just be able to snap out of anytime they want to or need to. That mentality, when not addressed correctly, leads people to think, "Well, maybe what I'm feeling is not okay. Maybe I should just be quiet about it because I don't want to be judged by someone who I feel comfortable talking with. I don't want them to see this side of me because it's not the way I want to be portrayed." And I think that speaks to the higher need to recognize that someone's mental illness is just a small part of who they are as a person. In reality, there's many aspects to a person's life that makes them who they are, and mental illness can be as small as we need it to be.

Interviewer: Do you have any further advice too around someone who's feeling that stigma around their own mental health? How do you start that conversation with a loved one or seeking professional help? What's the first thing I should start thinking if I feel that someone doesn't want to listen to what I have to say?

Clint Thurgood: What I would tell that person is something I mentioned a few minutes ago. One, it's okay to not be okay right now. Two, you are not alone. As we think about the stats I mentioned earlier, one in five adults in America have some form of mental illness. There's safety in numbers, and if one in five Americans are experiencing something similar, and so it's okay to share that, because what you're feeling is shared by many millions of Americans across the country. It’s also important to educate oneself. What is mental illness? If someone has believed that it's a character flaw, if you do a quick search on the internet, you'll soon find that mental illness is not a character flaw. It's important for the person who has mental illness to educate themselves as to what it is.

Interviewer: And what about the opposite side too? Say that I see a family member or a friend struggling in their day-to-day life, or they're not asking me for the help maybe they need, how do I start that conversation with someone if I think that they should seek out professional help? Or even just talk to me about it as well?

Clint Thurgood: I had a conversation with someone really close to me just a few days ago and I asked this person, "How comfortable would you feel if somebody were to tell you that they were depressed or that they were having thoughts of suicide or that they were feeling anxious?" And the person said to me, "Well, I wouldn't know what to say. I would feel ill-prepared because I don't know what advice to give." And then I asked that person, "What do you think the person who is asking you for this moment, what do you think they are looking for?" And they told me, "I think this person probably needs to feel loved. They need to feel that someone cares for them." And I asked, "Is this something that you can provide?" And they said, "Absolutely I can provide that."
That's my advice to people who don't know how to begin that conversation is that you don't need to present a solution. You just need to be present and be there for that person. It's so important when we are talking about mental health that our ability to connect with one another, our ability to connect with someone who's close to us and have that nuanced relationship, is extremely important. That's what I would say to the family member of the loved one who doesn't know how to approach that subject, just be present.

Interviewer: I think that's really great advice. And I'd love to talk a little bit more about different resources people have access to. The first one I just want to talk quickly about is Intermountain's Behavioral Health Navigation tool. Can you just quickly tell us what that tool is and how people can utilize it if they need it?

Clint Thurgood: The Behavioral Health Navigation Services is a new service provided by Intermountain, and it's really designed to help the community find the resources that they need. We know that it can be a network and it can be very difficult to find the right provider at the right time for the right symptoms. And so, the Behavioral Health Navigation services is a singular phone number where you can call in and speak with different caregivers in our organization to be directed to the right service, and as needed scheduled with an appointment, or referred to our Behavioral Health Connect Care, which is a new service that Intermountain is providing to help meet the needs of the patient or the loved one in real time.

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Interviewer: And that phone number for everyone watching is 833-442-2211. We'll put up a slide of resources at the very end of this discussion, so you have it. And it used to be called the Emotional Health Relief Hotline, so if you've watched these before and you've heard me mention it, this navigation hotline has kind of transformed more into behavioral health, which is great. Another resource you mentioned earlier was Can you just explain what NAMI is good for, what resources they offer, and why someone should seek out resources from them specifically?

Clint Thurgood: It's one of my favorite websites to look at when I'm trying to become more educated myself regarding behavioral health or mental illness. They have resources for individuals experiencing mental illness, as well as resources for family and loved ones who want to know more about the illness so they could become more prepared in supporting their loved one. And it has, as I mentioned before, the video that I watched regarding the 911 operator. That was one video of 364 pages that have already been uploaded this month of people sharing their stories. And so I think it's a wonderful resource and repository for people to connect and understand how mental illness affects others and reduce that stigma of reaching out for help.

Interviewer: Clint, is there anything else you'd like to mention to the people watching today around mental health or the stigma associated with it? Any last words you'd like to give today?

Clint Thurgood: You know, as I think about mental health, I can't help but think about the caregivers in behavioral health who care for these patients, whether that be on an outpatient basis or in the emergency department or in our behavioral health units. And I'm very grateful for them, and for them living to the creed that we've defined in behavioral health, and that's that we impact lives through connection and compassion. And I think that's something that I wish we could all take to heart and live by, that we can improve the mental health of ourselves and of others by doing simple acts of being kind and compassionate and connecting with others on a personal level.

Interviewer: As Clint mentioned, Intermountain has a Behavioral Health Navigation Hotline. That phone number is 833-442-2211. There's also the Utah Domestic Violence Hotline you can access at 1-800-897-LINK, which is 5465. There's also, which Clint mentioned, and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which phone number is 800-273-TALK, which is 8255.