In October of 2010, I attended Minds Interrupted, a program designed to promote dialogue and reduce stigma associated with mental illness. It was sponsored by The National Alliance on Mental Illness.
It featured a panel of people whose lives are affected by mental illness. A father spoke about supporting his son, sisters spoke about their lives together, and other panelists spoke directly about how bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and post traumatic stress disorder has affected their own lives and the lives of their family members.
Men and women from varying backgrounds and ages spoke candidly, humanly, and with compassion. They shared the details of their own delusions, traumatic experiences, and recovery towards lives that could be worn more like soft garments, less like suits of constrictive armor.
They spoke about loss, 10-foot spiders, and phantom enemies, the people who supported them through it all, and the people who left. I saw them as courageous because they stood before an audience of strangers and made themselves whole in a world that does not always see mental illness as a part of the whole person. I felt sewn by the yarn of experience into the fabric of this familiar audience. It is this kind of community work that is dedicated to reducing stigma around mental illness that stands at the heart of another program in the community that also serves to educate and build dialogue.
A month later, I attended the inaugural lecture in a new initiative – IDEAS in Psychiatry – from the University of New Mexico Department of Psychiatry. This event was the first in a series of educational programs funded through an anonymous gift from a family that was so grateful for the high quality care one of their family members received they wanted to do something that would help the department to move forward.
Dr. Samuel Keith, the then Chair of the UNM Department of Psychiatry and many others in the department spent months discussing how best to proceed. They also sought input from community leaders. They identified the need to develop an institute to educate health care providers, first responders and the public with accurate and up-to-date information about various fields and questions in psychiatry. This would serve to improve and expand the quality of care in New Mexico.
“Misinformation about mental illness is everywhere,” says Dr. Keith. “It’s time to address this directly and change perceptions.”
He cites a poignant example, “There are few champions who will share what they have accomplished in the face of mental illness.” To combat this lack, IDEAS in Psychiatry recently brought Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., to New Mexico. Dr. Jamison is a psychologist who lives with bipolar disorder and is the author of An Unquiet Mind. She is a highly accomplished professor and researcher at Johns Hopkins and a widely published author.
The public component of the lectures series is only part of the IDEAS in Psychiatry educational picture. These national experts provide workshops and seminars for doctors, residents and other healthcare professionals. They also present Grand Rounds (open to the public, too).
“Dr. Jamison talked to our medical students. They asked her ‘what is the critical ingredient in working with people?’ She said ‘empathy is important and you shouldn’t have to choose, but if I have to, I choose competence,’” says Dr. Keith.
The IDEAS program is also training a group of young psychiatrists to speak to corporations, agencies, NAMI, substance use organizations and other groups about mental illness. Through doing this, IDEAS hopes to create a resource base for the community and to continue confronting the stigma associated with mental illness.
Dr. Keith often talks about using a medical model to discuss mental illness, because, after all, mental illness is medical. For example, discussing cancer used to be taboo. “What changed that? The medical community developed successful treatments to help people survive and prosper,” he says. People stopped blaming the victims and started talking about the illness itself. “We want to present mental illness in a way that everyone can understand it,” says Dr. Keith.
Dr. Keith has worked in psychiatry for a long time. He held a fellowship in psychiatry, a lengthy tenure at the National Institute of Health, and served as Department Director at The National Institute of Mental Health. He has also been the editor of the Schizophrenia Bulletin, having done all of his primary research in that area of psychiatry.
Today Dr. Keith and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico are building a progressive new program that appears to be unique in its efforts to both educate a wide variety of people and reduce stigma associated with mental illness.
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