Why Ara Chackerian thinks Mental Health Awareness Month is so Important

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It’s called the silent crisis and Ara Chackerian is among many who want to do something about it. In our homes, workplaces, schools, places of worship, and close relationships, we encounter individuals who suffer from mental illness. Every person on the planet has been directly or indirectly impacted by the influence of mental illness, but many people are quick to label those who suffer from mental illness as defective, crazy, or worse. Not surprisingly, many sufferers go untreated as the worst of the symptoms associated with mental illness stymie energy, productivity, and “connections.” “Many people who have a mental illness do not want to talk about it,” note physicians from the American Psychiatric Association, adding, “but mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of!”[1] “It is a medical condition, just like heart disease or diabetes. And mental health conditions are treatable.”[2] “Your mental health is inseparable from your physical health,” notes Sean Evans, a contributor with Men’s Health.[3] “Not a revolutionary concept,” adds Evans, “but what is astounding is the stigmatization that still surrounds men who dare to talk about their mental struggles.”[4] Indeed, we are continually expanding our understanding of how the human brain works, and treatments are available to help people successfully manage mental health conditions.

As we step further into Mental Health Awareness Month (May), there is a growing chorus of advocates who want to ensure that those suffering from mental illness know they are supported with excellent treatment options and a cadre of allies. For Ara Chackerian and other mental health advocates, awareness and conversation are necessary first steps. Chackerian, an entrepreneur and philanthropist on the forefront of mental health treatment technologies, believes that deepened conversations about mental health in safe environments will inspire those who suffer to take appropriate steps in their treatment. Indeed, an individual living with mental illness is best served when he or she has talked about the trouble with supportive adults long before “reclining on the leather couch” in the mental health provider’s office.

The challenge, of course, is working beyond the stigma associated with mental illness. “Olivia,” a mental health clinician who specializes in work with individuals encountering depression believes that the stigma attached to mental illness in pervasive and debilitating. “Mental illness has a cemented stigma attached to it within society. It’s a stigma that has prevented open talk, education, and aid. The attitudes within our society put physical illness above a mental illness; it’s seen as more acceptable, it gains more support, sympathy and sensitivity from a variety of people. But most of all it’s an illness that allows for the tools of recovery, with easily accessible support and treatments, at a faster and higher rate.”[5] Indeed, western society has seemingly adopted the de facto position that discussing mental health concerns is taboo. This is a dangerous posture that has led to the unhelpful consequences of shifting the bulk of available resources and research toward physical maladies. “We’ve labeled and segregated people in need,” Notes Olivia, “we’ve made people feel that it’s abnormal to be ill, we’ve made people feel ashamed to be the person they are.” Further, “We’ve created demoralizing and discriminatory attitudes towards a person in need, solely due to where the illness had a occurred in the body, an illness that has developed involuntarily.”[6]

The Crisis 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports, “Approximately 44 million adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year—that is 1 in every 5 adults.” The report goes on to say, “Anxiety disorders (18.1%) and major depression (6.9%) are the most prevalent diagnoses.”[7] Relatedly, NAMI cited depression as the “leading cause of disability worldwide” as well as “a major contributor to the global burden of disease.”[8] The American Psychiatric Association points out that mental illnesses are common and, “are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”[9] “In a given year: one in 24 (4.1 percent) has a serious mental illness and one in 12 (8.5 percent) has a substance use disorder.”[10] In his work with mental health providers, Ara Chackerian has learned that mental illness can strike anyone from any walk of life. Psychiatric professionals certainly agree. “Mental illness does not discriminate; it can affect anyone regardless of your age, gender, income, social status, race/ethnicity, religion/spirituality, sexual orientation, background or other aspect of cultural identity. While mental illness can occur at any age, three-fourths of all mental illness begins by age 24.”[11] Among teens, mental illness is a staggering challenge. According to the National Alliance on mental health, nearly 20% of US teenagers suffer from several mental disorders every year.[12] Unfortunately, suicide remains the third leading cause of death for US teens. The numbers for adults, especially men, are not much better.

For CEOs, entrepreneurs, and other business leaders, the influence of mental illness is even more impactful. Given the pressure to build brand, revenue, client satisfaction, and the like, business leaders carry tremendous pressures with them into the office, sales event, of shareholder meeting. Indeed, visionaries like Ara Chackerian feel that the crisis cannot be swallowed or understated by the corporate world, but must be challenged head on. Again, there is a substantial mental illness burden in the corporate world. Forbes contributor Macela MacKenzie agrees. “Talking about mental health is a conversation entrepreneurs may need more than the rest—research suggests that entrepreneurs are significantly more likely to deal with mental health issues. Thirty percent of entrepreneurs surveyed in a recent study led by psychologist and University of California San Francisco professor Michael Freeman, M.D., reported struggling with depression.”[13]

Men and Mental Illness

 There is a deep awareness among some successful entrepreneurs like Ara Chackerian that men are far more likely to suffer in silence when confronted by the power of mental illness. Again, the key is awareness, specifically, offering an awareness of the impact of mental illness in the lives of men. Sean Evans of Men’s Health outlines the concern. “More than 3 million men struggle with anxiety daily. Of the 3.5 million people diagnosed as schizophrenic by the age of 30, more than 90 percent are men. An estimated 10 million men in the U.S. will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. We retreat from friends and instead drown sorrows in numbing substances. One out of every five men will develop an alcohol dependency during his life.[14] Unfortunately, as Evans points out, men have been conditioned to swallow their troubles because of the stigma attached to mental illness. “This macho attitude of stuffing your feelings down, or ignoring them, is antiquated and downright dangerous. It’s okay to not have your shit together. It’s okay to feel depressed. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be anxious. It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to not have everything figured out, to feel a wave of uncertainty come crashing over you and not know which way is up, or when your next gulp of air will come. These are perfectly normal feelings that every man experiences. And it’s okay to talk about it.”[15]

The Workplace

In his diversified experiences in a host of workspaces, Ara Chackerian has encountered unsavory attitudes and actions that victimize and alienate those contending with mental illness. As he champions the cause of mental illness awareness, Chackerian recognizes that the workplace is the frontier when it comes to advocacy. The evidence seems to support Ara Chackerian’s assertions. In a report delivered in April 2018, the BBC reported that “tiny prejudices” have made their way into workplaces, creating a toxic environment for many employees.[16] Antecedents from sexual harassment to unsavory comments about disability, continue to empower office bullies in their ongoing abuse of colleagues and employees, leading to health issues, declines in productivity, and growing concerns about workplace safety. “Welcome to the world of microaggressions,” noted BBC correspondent Brian Lufkin, adding “everyday slights and indignities some people encounter all the time – while others aren’t even aware they’re committing them.” Chackerian and others recognize that the mental health impacts associated with prejudice and microaggressions can amplify the mental health “loads” employees bring into the office. “A slow accumulation of these microaggressions can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of alienation and eventually even mental health issues, researchers warn. They can also create a toxic work environment.” Indeed, the workplace can become a toxic place for individuals already dealing with issues like depression and anxiety.

Adding to the chorus of awareness trumpeted by Ara Chackerian, businesswoman Emma McIlroy says that the time for silence is over. In her own experience of entrepreneurship, McIlroy learned, “I don’t think I know a single founder who hasn’t had some kind of brush with depression, had suicidal thoughts or experienced some level of intense mental stress.”[17] McIlroy adds, “I lived through enough of those really dark, crappy moments myself that I’m passionate about trying to figure out how anybody else going through them doesn’t have to go as dark and as low.”[18] Indeed, for the McIlroys and Chackerians of the world, conversation about this tough issue is a necessity. “Mental health is a critical conversation in the workplace—particularly from leaders. It must start at the top because it effects so many people. Somehow, mental health challenges are seen as a weakness or something to feel guilty or ashamed about, even though so many people are affected. The only way we’re going to remove the taboo is by talking about it. Talking about it is the only way you get better—the acknowledgement of it, and the ability to own it and be honest about it is, truthfully, the only way that you can recover and get better. I long for the day when I hear a senior leader [at a major company] talk about their struggles with depression or the fact that they drink too much to cope with stress. I long for that day when someone is not afraid to have that conversation.”[19]

Beyond the workplace stigma attached to mental illnesses, companies and organizations are directly impacted by the work challenges presented by employees combatting mental illness. Human resource professional Maria Kneib reports, “Mental health issues in the workplace expose companies to legal liability and productivity, performance, profitability, and safety problems,” adding, “This makes them a “silent tsunami” that can wash companies in a giant wave of disruption, leaving rippling and lasting effects.”[20] Echoing what Ara Chackerian has encountered in his own businesses, Kneib points out that mental illness contributes to presentism. “Statistics show that presenteeism can represent a greater drain on company resources and dollars than the productivity loss from absenteeism. In a study examining the financial impact of health conditions of 34,622 employees at 10 companies, two mental health disorders populated the top five health problems in terms of annual medical, drug, absenteeism, and presenteeism costs. Depression was first, ahead of obesity, arthritis, back and neck pain, and anxiety, respectively. Since the effects of mental illness carry a price tag, companies can’t afford to shelve the issue.”[21] Further, mental illness that is not addressed with appropriate treatments often contributes to staggering workplace safety issues. “For manufacturing, there is substantial evidence linking physical safety to safety behaviors and performance. Thus, safety professionals focus on recordables, near misses, and SIFs, and spend time and resources educating employees to follow procedures and use protective equipment.”[22] The costs? In a word, astounding. A recent study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health painted a sobering picture of the impacts of the low treatment rates among Americans confronting the reality mental illnesses. “Only about half of Americans diagnosed with major depression get treatment. In a study tracking employee responses to a questionnaire, employees with depression reported the equivalent of 27 lost work days per year—18 from lost productivity and 9 taken off from work.”[23] All of the evidence points to an additional reality. For advocates like Ara Chackerian, public awareness of the profound toll of mental illness must be coupled with a loving instance that sufferers receive treatment.

Options

In his advocacy and entrepreneurial work in the domain of mental illness, Ara Chackerian has identified three pillars of treatment, namely medicine, talk therapy, and technology. Likewise, the American Psychiatric Association contends, “Mental health treatment is based upon an individualized plan developed collaboratively with a mental health clinician and an individual (and family members if the individual desires).”[24] Psychiatrists yoked to the organization also assert that there are pillars in affective treatment. “It may include psychotherapy (talk therapy), medication or other treatments. Often a combination of therapy and medication is most effective. Complementary and alternative therapies are also increasingly being used.”[25] The good news? The days of struggling to find slivers of time for talk therapy alone are increasingly behind us. Today, good medicines and good technologies like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation offer mental health patients a plethora of choices at times and settings that account for the dynamic pace of life in the 21st Century. Today, insurance companies are also tapping into the potential of preventative care. Many treatments that were once considered exotic or elective, are “covered,” providing affordable efficacious treatments to individuals who at one time may have not had access to treatments that could make a difference in the quality of life.

In addition to the constellation of provider-based treatments and services, effective treatment of mental illness also resides in the intentionality of the individual living with illness. “Self-help and support can be very important to an individual’s coping, recovery and wellbeing. A comprehensive treatment plan may also include individual actions (for example, lifestyle changes, support groups or exercise) that enhance recovery and well-being.”[26]

Inasmuch, one of the opportunities foreseen by Ara Chackerian and others during Mental Health Awareness Month, is sharing an awareness of cutting edge treatments that are expanding the boundaries of mental health engagement. Once a cathedral of unwavering treatment orthodoxies like psychotherapy and group conversation, mental health treatment now builds upon nuanced technologies that can enhance patient experiences and prognoses. Take handheld devices as an example. Imagine engaging in a virtual exam made possible by a handheld device that can be instantaneously transmitted to physician a thousand miles away. Imagine software coupled to technologies that allow for behavioral health symptoms monitoring in “real-time,” offering patients immediate access to a variety of effective treatments that could provide significant relief until the patient is seen by the provider. With Ara Chackerian and others leading the charge in mental health innovation, these diverse technological tools are much closer than you might imagine. As more and more individuals take up the torch of awareness, society has a golden opportunity to move beyond mental illness stigmas and toward justice and support for those who are suffering.

 

[1] Extracted from: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness

[2] Ibid.

[3] Extracted from: https://www.menshealth.com/health/a20111514/men-mental-health-awareness-month/

[4] Ibid.

[5] Extracted from: https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/blog/why-mental-illness-regarded-taboo-compared-physical-illness

[6] Ibid.

[7] Extracted from: https://www.mapi.net/blog/2015/09/mental-health-workplace-silent-and-salient-issue

[8] Ibid.

[9] Extracted from: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Extracted from: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/mclean-hospital/how-technologies-are-help_b_14249164.html, 2017.

[13] Extracted from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/macaelamackenzie/2018/05/15/mental-health-awareness-month-why-ceos-need-to-talk-about-mental-health/#658bcdf353c2

[14] Extracted from: https://www.menshealth.com/health/a20111514/men-mental-health-awareness-month/

[15] Ibid.

[16] Extracted from: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20180406-the-tiny-ways-youre-offensive—and-you-dont-even-know-it

[17] Extracted from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/macaelamackenzie/2018/05/15/mental-health-awareness-month-why-ceos-need-to-talk-about-mental-health/#658bcdf353c2

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Extracted from: https://www.mapi.net/blog/2015/09/mental-health-workplace-silent-and-salient-issue

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Extracted from: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

 

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