Out of Stigma’s Shadow

By Robyn Gellar, Public Relations Coordinator for Jewish Community Services

While accepting an award at the Grammy’s in February of 2019, performer Lady Gaga positioned the issue of mental health front and center.

“If I don’t get another chance to say this, I just want to say I’m so proud to be a part of a movie that addresses mental health issues. They’re so important… [W]e gotta take care of each other. So, if you see somebody that’s hurting, don’t look away. And if you’re hurting, even though it might be hard, try to find that bravery within yourself to dive deep and go tell somebody…” – Lady Gaga

The reason Gaga’s speech made headlines, according to Ruth Klein, PhD., director of mental health and compliance for Jewish Community Services (JCS), an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, is that people rarely speak out or even speak at all about mental health issues.

“Brain diseases are tough,” she says. “Brain and behavior are seen as you, while other diseases of the blood or the body are things that happen to you.” People tend to feel that those with mental health issues can control their behavior, when that’s often not the case.

Kerry Graves, executive director of NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness) Metropolitan Baltimore, agrees. “Mental illness is seen differently than other illnesses like cancer or heart disease,” she explains. “It’s still not acceptable to say, ‘I need a break because of my mental illness.’

Yet, when Medstar Health recently conducted a community health needs assessment, sampling nearly a thousand people in Baltimore City, behavioral health – which includes mental illness and substance use disorders – emerged as the top priority. Those findings signaled “a real opportunity for Medstar to get involved in a more intentional way,” says Ryan Moran, community health director for all three of Medstar Health’s hospitals in Baltimore City.

Just a few months later, JCS, NAMI Metro Baltimore and Medstar Health are among the diverse group of partners coming together during Mental Health Awareness Month to present Out of Stigma’s Shadow: True, personal stories about mental health, mental illness, and the mysteries inside our heads. With help from The Stoop Storytelling Series, the program will feature first-person stories addressing behavioral health topics including depression, suicide, bipolar disorder, substance use disorders, and anxiety. Following intermission, a panel of experts will offer additional insight, resources, and information about advancements in treatment.

The free program will take place on Tuesday, May 21, 2019 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Additional program partners include Baltimore Jewish Council, Catholic Charities, Maryland Faith Health Network, and Behavioral Health System Baltimore.

As with many diseases or disorders, Dr. Klein points out that early intervention makes all the difference. “Whether or not you seek help, you still have the disease – avoidance or ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Issues will show up differently in different places like home or school, so professional evaluation is important.”

The program partners want the event to help eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness and substance use disorders and encourage people to seek help. Everyone agrees that increasing awareness is key.

Kerry Graves hopes that will translate into action on everyone’s part.“ It’s so important for people to have to the courage to hold honest conversations with those around them,” she says.

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