#3 Stopping the Stigma

I first began my research by interviewing my friend Owen Hammel. Since my list of ideas was so extensive, I gave him a choice of what he would like to discuss and he chose racism. I asked a few questions to get him started off but mainly left the ideas up to him. The more specific issue Owen talked about was the issue of the flying of the confederate flag. There is not a lot of racism present in our school, Middlebury Union High School, and while this is good, it doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent. One of probably the largest racism issues is that of flying the confederate flag. “There are people in our school who don’t understand what the confederate means or what it stands for and they are too ignorant to care if it offends anyone. [Sometimes] even if they do know that it is bad, they don’t really care”. There didn’t seem to be much more to say about this issue since it is a concern, but not much is known about how to address it.

For my second interview, I talked with my mom about another topic of interest; Mental Health Care in Vermont. My mom, Sarah Bourne, had a lot to say about this topic because this is the field of work she is in. New challenges I had not previously thought of were brought to my attention and sparked my interest even more. This time I decided to try a bit of a different approach to my interview. I asked more questions, still however leaving the majority of the talking up to my mom, but sort of thought along with her to extend upon ideas she was discussing with me.  I chose to record this interview so I could use it more as a conversation rather than an interview and I think this approach turned out very well…And very lengthy. We discussed more precise issues, the first being the issue of access. “We’ve made a lot of progress. I’ve been working in the field for many, many years and there has been a lot of progress in terms of awareness around mental health issues and the challenges people face…Things are better than they used to be but there are still issues around access to care because, especially in a place like Vermont that’s rural, it can be hard for people to get around to anything, to see a movie let alone to see a doctor or a therapist or get to a clinic.” After this issue was brought to my attention it seemed so obvious. Of course mental health care is harder for people to access in Vermont because everything is rather spread out and most often getting from one place to another involves driving. My mom continued, “There are also issues around people having enough money or insurance coverage to ease the financial burden of getting care that they need.” This is most certainly a prominent issue that is something lots of people struggle with every day. This is also a factor that certainly prevents lots of people from getting the care and that is why I really believe this issue needs addressing. “Related to all of this (these issues previously discussed) and one of the biggest barriers is the stigma that exists in our society, and probably societies around the world, that mental health challenges are perceived differently. But for a lot of people I think there is growing awareness and acceptance of mental health challenges but for many people there is a lot of real stigma related to needing to access mental health care. That if you have a mental health issue you’re weak and just not tough enough.” To better explain what she means I then asked her,

“And for example you mean seeing a therapist?”

“Yes or if you need to go into the hospital or you need to go into a program for substance use…There are lots of different types of care and types of challenges people have. I think there have been improvements in the range of options available to people and I think that is also a good thing, but I think the system is still very much a medical model and is dominated by the perception that maybe you should just take medicine, a prescription to fix what ails you because there is a lot of pressure from pharmaceutical companies, pushing drugs into the “pipeline”. There are pressures on physicians, psychiatrists and other providers who don’t have enough time to spend with people and that is true whether it’s a mental health issue or some other type of issue and people can be kind of lazy. Taking a pill sometimes seems like the easier, quicker solution,  Just like diet pills rather than exercising and changing your diet. So there are a lot of forces that I think lead us to types of treatment that maybe aren’t the most effective.” I continue to direct the conversation,

“And do you think that the labels being put on people, do you think that is also effecting the system?”

“Yes because  what can also happen is that people get very worried about getting a diagnosis in their medical record or their insurance company sees a claim, “this or that diagnosis,” that kind of thing can follow them around and people get concerned about that, rightly so.”

“Do you think it almost makes it worse for them or their condition?”

“Yes because it can lead to people not wanting to receive care. But one of the big things that they finding out in the research around serious mental illnesses– for many, many years there was the thinking that a lot of these conditions were because something was wrong in the brain, in the brain chemistry and there is a lot of evidence now to refute that. What they are finding instead is that the vast majority of people have had trauma in their backgrounds and that could be serious poverty or malnutrition or witnessing or experiencing serious violence (sexual, emotional or physical) and they are finding that that is a very common thread among people who have a serious and persistent mental illness. Luckily this is starting  to inform providers to look at what has gone on, what has happened to them rather than what is wrong with them. It’s slow and it’s promising, but there is a long way to go…We know more now about the brain and how the brain is affected at young ages especially by trauma.” As you can see, my mom certainly had a lot to say about this topic and, believe it or not, that wasn’t even the entire interview.

I apologize for the length of this blog post but I believe what my mom had to say about mental health care really gave a wide, full look into some of the problems that currently exist in the mental health field today. It is a wonderful thing that care has gotten better, but it still shows us there is a very long way to go.

It was hard to compare parallels in the interviews because they were both so different. Of course the common thread was that we have an unresolved issue that may be better than it has been, but not where it should be. And this is exactly why I have conducted these interviews and shared this newfound information with you.

Grace Widelitz

2 Responses to “#3 Stopping the Stigma

  • Hi Grace,

    First, I really like the image you chose to compliment your blog. Did you find this in the database or is it one you took? To me, it represented your sitting down and chatting with people about topics, but it also represented listening and thinking, two themes that appeared in your discussion about mental health.

    I also liked how you asked Owen about what topics were on his mind; that was a unique approach to the assignment. Race is always a relevant topic for investigation, and I would argue that this is more true now than ever, especially in our country. The Confederate flag is a timely angle, but I would also argue that the Confederate flag is only the tip of the iceberg where race relations are concerned. Perhaps even more timely, in fact, is the Black Lives Matter slogan and the BLM flag that was stolen from UVM over the weekend. Both flags symbolize very deep-rooted and historically complex issues that plague our nation.

    Obviously, the bulk of your blog was dedicated to your discussion with your mom about mental health, another deep-rooted and complex issue that plagues our nation, including right here in Addison County. Something I learned from your blog that I had never considered was the reality that some people avoid treatment because they — understandably (as you point out) do not want their unique struggle to be a part of their permanent health record. The fact that the “fine print” pertaining to securing and maintaining health care coverage prohibits the very people “health insurance” should be assisting highlights a frustrating reality.

    Of the many notable points made in this discussion, I was also drawn to the idea that “…one of the big things that they finding out in the research around serious mental illnesses– for many, many years there was the thinking that a lot of these conditions were because something was wrong in the brain, in the brain chemistry and there is a lot of evidence now to refute that.” This makes a lot of sense to me, and it’s also something very serious for me, as an educator, to remember and reflect upon as much as possible — on a daily basis, really.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. I’m looking forward to more soon…


  • Hi Grace,
    I think you have researched some of the most relevant and sensitive topics in todays society. I have several family members who have been negatively impacted by lack of seriousness about mental illness, so I care deeply about this topic. I am much encouraged by some of the news you have put forth, and saddened by others, particularly in the areas of suffering that are simply caused by ignorance. I think education is extremely important in making people aware of these issues, so thank you for researching them and posting your findings! However, it seems that at least the topic of mental health is going in the right direction. Hooray!

    Thanks again for you blog,

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