Season 14 | Ep. 3

Mental Health Stigma

For much of history, the mentally ill have been treated very poorly. Thought to be possessed by demons or witchcraft, the mentally ill were often separated from the rest of society. Today, we understand more about mental health, but stigma still exists. We’ll examine the roots of mental health stigma and how it can prevent people from seeking treatment.

Embarrassed, ashamed, scared. A few words people have used to describe their feelings about having a mental illness. It’s estimated that nearly one in five U.S. Adults is living with a mental illness. Still, stigma persists making it hard for those suffering to speak openly or get help.

Hello, my name is Daniel Difava, Jr. I have struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts for most of my life.

I’ve been living with mental illness since the age of 26 when I was diagnosed with type I bipolar disorder.

I struggle with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and self-harm for about seven years.

Anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember. There is that stigma, and it’s something you don’t talk about.

What helped me there was to realize that I wasn’t alone in this.

I realized that outside there were others who had been through similar things. When I read their stories online through blogs, I was inspired.

I think it’s crucial that everybody who is willing and feels comfortable with it come forward and speak about it freely. And if you can tell just one person that they’re not alone, it’s so worth it.

All of our stories have the ability to help someone else if we’re willing to share them.

The thing that makes me feel so much better in my struggle is someone else saying, “Yeah, same here.”

Today, healthcare is about empowering people to take control of their health, whether creating a fitness routine, choosing the right procedures and medications, or adhering to treatment for a chronic condition, Capital BlueCross, dedicated to underwriting Transforming Health, for the good health of the community. Capital BlueCross, live fearless.

WellSpan Health, helping patients reach their health goals through a coordinated system of physicians, hospitals, and convenient healthcare services in communities across central Pennsylvania. Learn more at wellspan.org WellSpan Health, for the journey that is life.

Support also comes from viewers like you. Thank you.

Hello and welcome to “Transforming Health.” I’m Keira McGuire. Throughout our three part series on mental health, we’ve examined the history of mental illness and its affect on our children and schools. Now we’re focusing on the entrenched stigma that’s connected to mental disorders by celebrating the efforts of those trying to fight it. Over the next half hour, you’ll get a closer look at three different projects that work in our communities. The people behind these projects are passionate and inspiring. Each has a different approach to fighting stigma, and each is making a difference in their own way. I can’t wait for you to meet them. Our first story centers around one man’s struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, and how he was able to emerge from that dark space to one where he’s able to help others through his love of photography.

Hello, my name is Daniel Difava, Jr. And I have struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts for most of my life. I was born with growth hormone deficiency, so my body doesn’t produce the hormones that everybody else has to gain the weight, the muscle. So I’m smaller than most people. And that caused a lot of bullying and things like that. And I also had –I have epilepsy. So, seizures and convulsions. So people saw that and didn’t — weren’t nice because of that. So that was probably the start of it all. Loneliness. The feelings were mainly loneliness — and a feeling of being — kind of — lost.

I’m Blayne. And I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember. It started so young. I just kind of thought I was more sensitive than everybody else. At least, that’s what everybody else chalked it up to. For no reason at all, I would get really sad.

Hi, my name’s Alex, and I’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and self-harm for about seven years. Once my parents got divorced, I realized I was very depressed because of it, and I blamed myself fully. I never wanted to leave my bed. I hardly ever ate. I was just super sad all the time, and nothing — I never felt joy in anything. And I just felt like I was a downer towards everybody. I would cut myself using a razor.

I say a lot of times it’s like carrying a lead blanket around. It’s very nebulous. I can’t put a — you can’t put it in a box. Can’t define it. So I think it’s different for everybody, too. I felt that I had nothing else, therefore I’m not going to lose what little I had left by going and — going to a mental health facility and saying, “I’m sick. I’m mentally unstable.” Because I had nothing else in my mind. All I had was my pride. That was — I’d be a total loser in my mind, at that point, if that makes any sense. Our society is just bathed in stigma, isn’t it? About everything. Total stigma that led me to think I was a failure by going into a mental health facility.

In college, I kind of started, you know, googling the terms and how to know if you’re struggling with it, because there is that stigma. And it’s something you don’t talk about, or at least we didn’t back then. It definitely stunted my ability to get help. I could have been seeing someone, I could have been on medication much sooner than my early to mid 20s. From suicide ideation when I was 13 all the way up, there were definite red flags and points that if it weren’t such a bad thing to talk about, it — it would have been so much easier.

There was about five times that I came to the conclusion that I needed to end my life. I was crying out for help, quote unquote, all along. But during that time where I was attempting, I texted my mother and actually my epilepsy doctor, and they got in contact with the local police. And they came and took me to the mental health facility. What helped me there was to realize that I wasn’t alone in this. I was put on some medication, and after a little bit that really helped balanced me out. And helped me open my eyes a little bit. And — with that and some counseling I was really able to turn my life around.

About two years our of college, I sought help. It’s been about four years. It’s easier. It’s — I feel more myself. I feel freer to express myself and to be honest with those around me. I no longer feel like I have to push aside this part of me that can be inconvenient at times. It’s more so learning how to roll with it and to let myself feel those things, because it’s natural. It’s normal.

I absolutely love my life today. It couldn’t get more perfect. I mean, I have a baby now, and he’s — [ laughter ] he’s everything. And he really helped me and saved me. Um — sorry. I just — he’s amazing. I love him with everything. And he really did save me. Like, when I say my baby saved my life, that’s honestly true. I’m just so proud of how far I’ve come. I am in disbelief that I felt that way.

Life today is awesome. I am so confident in myself that I am able to go out and help others. I wanted to take photography and my desire to help those with mental illness and put them together to create something I didn’t know at that point what it was.    I just started shooting out Facebook messages, emails. I had no idea what I was doing. I was just blindly reaching out to people.

And I think it’s an amazing project that dan started. I was so excited for it, and I was like, “how can I get involved?” Like, “yes, I want to help you.”

I never wanted to sugarcoat anything.

And the project is amazing. The — seeing my picture, I was like, that’s me. That’s my story. Like, that’s weird.

I like it. It’s kind of like taking it back. We are the people who are stigmatized.

I felt, like, weight lifted off my shoulders that I wasn’t hiding anything anymore. My story was out there for anybody and everybody. And it felt cool to not have my skeletons hiding in my closet. Like, this is who I am. And it’s cool to have everybody see it.

In this series, you kind of get to see the spotlight on people who would normally shrink from it. And through the photos, it’s pretty evident that the moment that camera is on them, they just kind of flourish and feel seen and feel validated.

A lot of them are just relieved to get that weight off their shoulders. And when they see the picture, they’re revealing things that they’ve — some of them are revealing things that they’ve had down inside of them for years. My life has changed so much because of these people. We are all close friends now. Like, almost like a community. The reaction to the exhibit has definitely been positive for those who struggle and for those who do not. It’s so simple. Why can we not just be nice to one another? And that sounds so cliche, but if someone’s down or if someone’s feeling bad about themselves, why can’t we just go, “hey, it’s going to be alright, man.” Just be there for one another. I hope to see the project continue to blossom. As of now, I would like to do ten people a year. I can’t stop with it now. It’s who I am and what I do.

If you’d like to learn more about stigma people, how you can view the exhibit or participate, you can head to stigmapeople.com

our next story focuses on a pediatrician who worries teenagers are not being screened for depression often enough. She’s wondering if a universal school-based screening could reduce stigma for young people.

There’s absolutely a stigma. There are definitely the kids where you’re like, “you’re really depressed.” And the parents will say to you, “well that’s not an issue in our family. I think she can pull herself out of this.” But you see them over and over. And she’s not pulling herself out of it. And it’s there.    Pediatricians sometimes laugh about this. If we did every single thing that we were supposed to do during a regular well visit, it would be like two hours long. But you typically have thirty minutes, so you’re going to pick and choose a little bit the things that you feel like are most relevant. I’m hopeful that it’s more than a number show, because people are maybe actually having that conversation. But it’s not being billed or documented that way.    I had previously worked with schools through some of my other work-related to adolescent hearing screens. And it seemed a natural progression that we would start to look beyond just physical health screenings in school and consider mental health related screenings. If we’re screening all these kids for it, hopefully that’ll just maybe even make parents be less like, “oh, you know, they’re doing it with vision and hearing screens. It’s just another screening we do, ’cause it’s another important thing that could affect my child’s education.” We will have 15 schools, there may be a 16th at the last minute total. And over 17,000 kids between all the schools. There is an opt out form sent home to every single student in these high schools that we’re working with in advance to let them know the school’s partnered with Penn State on this effort to do a better job at identifying mental illness, that the kids are getting a mood screener. We are using the patient health questionnaire to do the screenings. The patient-health questionnaire 9, which I picked for a variety of reasons, but very simply it is brief. It takes the kids less than two minutes to fill out. I imagine we will pick up more cases who screen positive. What I hope really happens is that we’re able to get the kids who really need treatment into treatment. If we end up saving one kid’s life, because they flagged there that they were suicidal, and they get picked up and somebody helps them, there’s no doubt it’d be worth the whole thing. Even if we got one kid. And at the very least, I hope we can move the needle on the stigma issue some. That’s the whole idea, right? Because you wouldn’t think twice about telling someone that you had swimmer’s ear or an ear infection, right? Like, it would be fine. But all of a sudden, when its something like depression, it’s like oh, my gosh. You know, I can’t tell anybody about this. And it would be really nice to just get people talking about it. I also think it makes it less isolating. Everybody struggles with something.

Our final story focuses on a woman from Hershey who shares her journey with mental illness in the hopes that one day it won’t take bravery to talk about mental health.

My name is Jennifer, and I’ve been living with mental illness since the age of 26 when I was diagnosed with type I bipolar disorder. I was doing really well in my career. I was a recruiter with an agency in Washington, D.C., A staffing agency, and had worked my way up from being the, you know, rookie at the office to really the top recruiter in the company over four years. And I think what happened was I had a week where I didn’t sleep well at all. I mean, barely slept. And it culminated in a manic episode where I was in the hospital. Two weeks later, it happened again and I was in the hospital on Christmas day in 2005. So, two episodes back to back, and my family knew that it was really serious and that I had to figure out what it really was that I was dealing with. I had no prior experience with any kind of mental health issue. I didn’t even know anyone who had went through something as simple as depression. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed that this was maybe something that I caused. It took a year and a half, and I started to feel better once we found the right medicine.    After that, it was finding stories from other people who had made it out of a similar struggle. Very similar stories. And when I read their stories online through blogs, I was inspired. You know, I felt — I didn’t feel alone anymore. They inspired my to start writing my story, because I felt like they helped me. And if telling my story could help just one person, it would be worth putting myself out there. I believe every person will go through some kind of mental health issue in their lifetime, so to me it’s almost normal that I went through something like that. It’s a condition I’m going to live with for the rest of my life, and I’m going to manage for the rest of my life. But once I was able to get to a point to efficiently and affectively manage it, it really became almost a non-issue in my life. I wanted to create a place where people could celebrate recovery, because if you can celebrate having overcome cancer, why can’t we celebrate living successfully with a brain illness? And we put it on Kickstarter and said this is our idea, we want to fund it. We raised over $10,000 in 31 days and put the first show on. This is my brave is a platform for people to share their true stories through creative expression live on stage.

Anxiety, depression, PTSD, all describe me, but they don’t define me.

They tell their stories very creatively. So it’s original music, poetry, personal essay. We’ve had comedians, dancers, even some acting. But the acting is acting our their true story. So we had one couple that acted out their first date, because they were nervous to tell each other that they had a mental health condition. And it was really neat, the, like, back and forth of this artistic piece. So it’s been really neat.

I share my pain with you. My life with you. God’s truth, my freedom, my heart with you. I’m gonna rock out with my scars out. Stomp on my pride. I’m gonna rock out with this new life. I’m gonna rock this testimony.

The everyday tasks that I used to do suddenly became the most difficult tasks. From the time I opened my eyes to the time I closed them to go to sleep I lived in fear. I would force myself to go to work in spite all of my anxiety. I would have anywhere from three to five full blown panic attacks at work on any given day. I would end my day, curled up sitting in the shower just praying and hoping that tomorrow this would all be over.   Look in the mirror at what you’ve become but don’t let it scare you ’cause you’re not yet done

people who heard about it said, “I want to bring this to my community.” And we empowered them by working with them to bring it to cities across the country. And we’ve grown since then.    Some of the most amazing reactions have been from audience members. Like, we receive — we get testimonials after the show and some of the quotes are things like, “I never realized I dealt with anxiety and depression until sitting in the audience and hearing these stories. And I’m going to go and find a therapist.” Like that is the ideal response. We want people to know that they’re not alone. We want them to know that it’s normal to go through these issues, and that there’s help out there.    We’ve had as young as 15, but this is the first focused show on high school, the high school population, teens and what they’re dealing with in terms of mental health. So its really exciting to be bringing it back to my hometown. I grew up right here in the Hershey area and attended Hershey schools from fifth grade through graduating from high school here. And I just have — there’s a special place in my heart for this town.

That she would give back to her community, that she would care enough to come back and give back in this way I think speaks volumes. I couldn’t be more thrilled about being part of this is my brave: high school edition, because I think this is gonna, you know, just tear that curtain down a little bit. And the courage that it will take for those students to get on that stage and be brave like that can only help our community and the surrounding communities.

I just want to make a difference for these kids and show them that they’re — they’re so much more. You know, that they are going to experience these challenges, but that there’s hope and there’s — you know, there’s recovery through this.

I would love to go back and tell that little girl of porcelain, it’s okay, it’s not your fault. Or the girl of ivory, put the bottle down. But those mistakes made me stronger. They made me steel. They made me Morgan King. I mean, I’m happy with that now, so. [ Applause ]

oh, that’s so good. I can’t believe you memorized it. But that’s your story. You know your story.

Awesome.

And it was beautiful.

And you are enough, Morgan King. You are enough.

Hi, my name is Morgan King. And I struggle with depression. Probably in fifth grade, just after going through a lot of bullying I realized this isn’t how you’re supposed to feel, you know? There’s a difference between sadness and, oh, this isn’t just sadness. This is not wanting to move, get up, eat. And I realized I needed help. It started with the little things, that figuring out that the stigma against this, it didn’t mean I should prevent myself from getting help. It was reaching out to a therapist, meeting new people, you know, getting off my butt and going to the gym, eating right. Just taking those little steps, not only better myself but figure out a way to feel better everyday. I decided to audition for this is my brave, because I just want to help people. I know that’s a really — you know, naive thing to say, but it’s true. I realize that, you know, this is necessary. This is what we need today. We need to show people that it’s okay to not be okay.

They’ve been so impressive. I mean, just the — what they’re willing to share. And you can really tell that they want to make a difference, that mental health is important to them, that they’re willing to standup in front of their peers. So, for these kids to share their bravery this way is amazing.

My hope is when you walk through that door, you walk in one day, and when you walk out, you walk out changed. And that something’s going to be different, either the way you look at mental health or the stigma that you brought in, that something will walk out the door — you are changed by it.

What happens when someone shares their story is they’re usually surprised at the response. And what I’m seeing time and time again over these years has been a rush of gratitude. And I’ve gone through something similar.

I’ve been doing this now for seven years. And I do think that we’ve made strides. I think that there’s so much further to go. I think that the sooner we can, you know, start those conversations in our schools, with our families, our organization is just one piece of the puzzle that’s really trying to change the conversation about mental health. One day, hopefully we’ll live in a world where we don’t have to call it brave for talking openly about mental illness, that we’ll simply call it talking.

If you’d like to learn more about this is my brave, or the high school edition pilot program in Hershey, you can go to thisismybrave.org

I’d like to thank all of our guests for sharing their stories so openly and honestly. And you for joining us for this important conversation. If you or someone you know is in need of help, contact the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Please join us next time as we continue to share stories and transform heath. I’m Keira McGuire. Thanks for watching.

Today, healthcare is about empowering people to take control of their health. Whether creating a fitness routine, choosing the right procedures and medications, or adhering to treatment for a chronic condition. Capital BlueCross. Dedicated to underwriting Transforming Health for the good health of the community. Capital BlueCross. Live fearless.

WellSpan Health. Helping patients reach their health goals through a physicians, hospitals, and convenient healthcare services in communities across central Pennsylvania. Learn more at wellspan.org WellSpan Health, for the journey that is life.

Support also comes from viewers like you. Thank you.

Watch more Transforming Health Episodes


Keira McGuire
Keira McGuire/WITF

Keira McGuire is a health reporter and multimedia producer for WITF. She hosts and produces Transforming Health television programs as well as other shows and documentaries for WITF’s Original Productions. McGuire produced the Emmy Award winning series HealthSmart for the last ten years. Keira previously worked at WBFF in Baltimore and WMDT in Salisbury as a reporter and anchor. She’s a graduate of Towson University.

Read more by Keira McGuire