By John W. Boyd, PsyD, FACHE
Amid the mental health messages emerging this month on social media feeds, music platforms and billboards, it’s important that we recognize the existence, origin and importance of this national awareness effort. Mental Health America created Mental Health Awareness Month in May 1949 to build knowledge, encourage more mental health screenings and offer support. In that era, many individuals who sought out mental healthcare were shunned and, all too often, treatment was synonymous with institutionalization. While we have since moved to more compassionate community-based care, the stigma to seek help and the challenge to access it remain.
As a leader in mental health and addiction care at Northern California-based, not-for-profit Sutter Health, I want to recognize and own that all of us still have more work to do as healthcare professionals. We all play a part in advancing awareness, education and access.
Sutter Health believes that mental health is human health. We are committed to seeing the whole person in every patient, and integrating physical and mental health services across their lifespan. We recognize that total care is about more than a visit or diagnosis—and that it lasts long after treatment. This is a mindset that we want to spread to others—families, healthcare professionals, community members, government policymakers and insurance providers—as we address the increasing number of people affected by mental health and addiction challenges.
We know this is not a simple task, but Mental Health Awareness Month reminds us all how we can reduce stigma together. As clinicians and healthcare leaders, we have an additional accountability to serve the mental health needs of our patients and communities. Here’s what I have learned on this journey:
- Share your own lived experience. As a healthcare provider, sharing your own story about the impacts of mental health on you or someone you know opens a door; it makes you human and more approachable to those who need help. There is strength in vulnerability, and when you share, others are more likely to share as well. Top leaders in our organization have shared their stories—from mourning death by suicide in their families to sharing their own mental health challenges to talking about the impact of addiction on those they love.
- Partner with experts who have proven tools. Experts in organizations focused on different aspects of mental health have a wealth of information—use it. At Sutter Health, we’ve provided clinicians, employees and their family members with tools, like PsychHub, to educate them about tough topics like addiction, suicide, anxiety and depression. We’ve given them the resources through our partnerships with Shatterproof, LivingWorks, SilverCloud and Mental Health America so they can learn the signs of mental health distress and how to help someone.
- Stand up for our patients’ mental health needs. Clinicians and healthcare leaders can be a voice, individually and collectively, for moving our society beyond stigma and providing easier and greater access to care. The pandemic has brought the extreme need for mental healthcare to the surface, with growing numbers of people experiencing anxiety, depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts due to the uncertainty of the crisis and isolation. We have an opportunity to advocate at all levels—national, state and local—to provide greater access in physical and virtual spaces. We can demand better reimbursement for mental health services. We can encourage education to reduce stigma at all levels.
This May, I encourage you to move beyond awareness to action for our patients with mental health and addiction care needs. Let’s move toward a society without stigma and with better access to care. With few voices, this is hard. With many, it’s possible.
John W. Boyd, PsyD, FACHE, is CEO of System Mental Health & Addiction Care for Sutter Health in Sacramento, Calif. (firstname.lastname@example.org).