“It Affects People We Just Really Love”

Not very long ago, there was a debilitating stigma around breast cancer. After Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s quick and public announcement this week revealing that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer, USA Today published a great piece tracing how the stigma has been largely overcome. Are there some lessons here for breaking the stigma around mental health? Let’s hope so!

 

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Looking at “some of the big moments that took breast cancer out of the dark and into the pink,” the article starts with Terese Lasser, “the very first true activist… who bumped against the system.” Lasser questioned her surgeon’s indifference, and eventually formed the Reach to Recovery program to support women coping with breast cancer.

Perhaps we need more Terese Lassers bumping “against the system” in mental health.

The article cites a “huge event”—when then-First Lady Betty Ford announced publicly, in 1974, that she had breast cancer.

Thankfully, more and more public figures are “going public” with their mental health struggles. But more often than not, these testimonials are either overlooked by the media, or overshadowed by coverage of behaviors related to the public figures’ disorders.

The article reports on how in 1982 Nancy Brinker founded the first organization to target fundraising for breast cancer research, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. In 2015, Susan G. Komen, just one of many organizations doing this work, reported revenue of $118.4 million. One in 8 women get breast cancer.

Mental health advocates must find more effective ways to fund mental health research. By contrast, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in 2015 raised less than one-fifth of that—$19.4 million—for its research and advocacy programs. An important organization dealing more broadly with mental health research, the Child Mind Institute, pulled in $11.2 million. An estimated 1 in 5 Americans experienced mental illness in 2015.

USA Today notes how more women were elected to Congress in 1992, and some of them took up the breast cancer cause (including some with personal family experience).

Former Republican Senator Gordan H. Smith of Utah was one such champion for mental health in Congress. After his son died by suicide at age 21 in 2003, Smith pushed for passage of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act. It has provided millions in government funds for suicide prevention projects across the nation.

Explaining the success of the fight against breast cancer, a spokesman for the Susan H. Komen foundation remarked: “It affects people we just really love. Our moms and our daughters. Our grandmothers and our sisters. And in some cases our dads.”

Mental illness, too, affects people we just really love.

Caption: The semicolon is a symbol of suicide prevention, the brainchild of Project Semicolon whose slogan holds that “your story isn’t over yet.”