Why can't we talk about it?

Imagine your child is told she has cystic fibrosis or a coworker has a heart attack or a friend is diagnosed with cancer. What do you do? Well that answer is usually pretty clear: you are supportive, you quickly help them get the healthcare treatment they need and you talk about the emotions behind their pain.

Now imagine if a loved one told you she had schizophrenia or a substance use disorder. What would you do? Would your reaction be the same? Would you offer to come over and spend some time with them? Would you bring over a casserole?

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That is how it should be. But unfortunately, the lingering stigma of mental illness and addiction prevents many of us from reaching out.

One in four people are living with a mental illness. 22 million people have a substance use disorder. Each and every one is highly treatable, but people don’t always know how to ask for help or that recovery is possible. We are not afraid to hear a friend talk about his recent stroke, but we shy away from a family member talking about her addiction. We whisper behind her back instead of having a real conversation.

Far too often, the stigma of mental illness and addiction gets in the way of timely treatment.   It is time to stamp out the stigma.

That’s why the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness (ABHW) is spearheading the Stamp Out Stigma campaign to transform the dialogue and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and substance use disorders. Six of our member companies are collaborating on this campaign to use their collective reach to put an end to the stigma. Along with Aetna Behavioral Health, Beacon Health Strategies, Cenpatico, Cigna, New Directions Behavioral

Health and ValueOptions, we are going to start a conversation through social media and online action to reach more than 1,000,000 people in 2014 to change perceptions. Mental health and addiction are not topics we usually talk about openly on our Facebook walls, but we are going to work to change that.

Like high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, there are things a person can do to manage the symptoms of a mental illness or substance use disorder. Recovery is possible. We must educate and motivate ourselves and others with that fact. We need to share our experiences. There’s strength in talking about it.

People joining the Stamp Out Stigma campaign will become catalysts for change. By wearing Stamp Out Stigma wristbands and sharing our stories, the campaign will help remove the stigma of mental illness and addiction and those barriers to health-seeking behavior. By recognizing when you or your loved ones need help, reeducating others to show them there is help and hope and reducing misunderstandings and the hesitation to seek care, we can stamp out the stigma and promote recovery.

People with serious mental illnesses die 25 years earlier on average than someone without a mental illness.  Sadly, many die from very treatable and sometimes preventable causes.  But for those who do receive treatment, up to ninety percent are able to significantly reduce their symptoms.

ABHW members are taking an important step forward today. In the first phase of the campaign, our members will be using social media to get the word out and encouraging their employees to join and take the simple steps that can make a difference.  Ask a loved one who just lost a job how he’s feeling.  Share an article with your friends on the misconceptions of mental health or addiction issues. Spend some time with your colleague or friend who has seemed down lately. Don’t be afraid to ask them if something is wrong. Talk about it; share your personal story. Show your support by changing your Facebook profile picture and go to www.stampoutstigma.com to learn more about our campaign.

Let’s turn our whispers into healthy conversations. Join ABHW by taking the Stamp Out Stigma pledge and committing to recognizing, reeducating and reducing the stigma.

Greenberg is president and CEO of the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness.