For this CEO, the fight against stigma is personal

by Ian Aitken on December 10, 2010 · 3 comments

in stigma

Photo courtesy of Aktron/Wikimedia Commons

As 2010 comes to a close, I find myself thinking a lot about the plans we had as we relocated to Houston from Topeka, Kansas, several years ago. One of our most ambitious plans: create a new setting for our work because we believed a new approach to advancing mental health care, education and research was imperative. The fact that we recently began construction on The Mental Health Epicenter, Menninger’s future 50-acre headquarters, feels like both a professional and personal victory.

By building The Mental Health Epicenter, we are creating an innovative mental health campus that will be a foundation for change in matters of mental health. We hope to draw the same level of attention to mental disorders as is given to cancer and heart disease, and continue working to eliminate the stigma that still haunts people with mental illness, even after all the advances of science and medicine.

Four decades later

I became involved in psychiatric hospitals more than 40 years ago, and I can attest to how far we have come. When I began my career at a state hospital, the patients, whose families had abandoned them, were frequently buried on the hospital grounds where they lived. As a young person, I was assigned to that detail. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that it left quite an impression on me.

Things have changed since then, yet some things have remained the same. Take stigma, for example. I am well aware that stigma still surrounds mental illness and affects the way public resources are directed toward the problem. That must change, and we understand our responsibility to be a leader in that change. Through The Epicenter, we will create more public/private collaborations with mental health organizations so that together we can have an exponential impact on the battle to defeat stigma.

Eradicating stigma

We also aspire to eliminate stigma one day by being able to precisely measure the results of mental illness treatment, just as we measure the treatment outcomes of cancer, diabetes and other medical illnesses.

We have a treatment outcomes project that tracks patient data while patients are hospitalized, and we’re in the process of learning how best to track the long-term outcomes of our patients post-discharge. I’m convinced that determining the effectiveness of treatments will improve future care, influence more people suffering from mental illness to get treatment and increase potential for greater behavioral healthcare insurance benefits.

Community role

At Menninger, we remain guided by Menninger founder Dr. Will Menninger’s admonition:

“The measure of any community lies in how it cares for its most disabled member.”

For decades before our move to Houston, we were known for  providing mental health services to underserved populations, and I’m thrilled that this commitment continues here in Texas through partnerships with some outstanding local organizations: Texas Children’s Hospital, Baylor College of Medicine, Windsor Village United Methodist Church and the Mental Health & Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.

Together, we are delivering mental health care to underserved Houstonians. Together, we are  lifting up the entire community. Together, we are doing more than we could possibly do on our own. And we will expand to do even more.

No character flaw

As a leader in the field, we want to increase national awareness that mental illness is not a character flaw. In fact, science has proved it results from malfunctions in the body’s largest organ, the brain. Some day, we’ll have a yearly mental health checkup along with our annual physical. It only makes sense. There is no health without mental health. It’s that simple.

Ridding the world of stigma isn’t quite so simple, which is why we need to enlist your help: read and share our blog posts with your friends, volunteer with a mental health organization in your community, attend a support group or reach out to a friend or loved one with mental illness.

Together, we can win this battle.

Editor’s note: Ian Aitken is the president and chief executive officer of The Menninger Clinic.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Gerard Scott March 3, 2014 at 3:36 pm

The stigma is still there. What should be considered a gift, is either an illness or now disorder. Maybe what really should be classified as the disorder is the human condition of not being schizotypy. Schizotypy is a genetic mutation which but for the negative stigma gives one a survival advantage.

When my 5th grade teacher met with my mother following this incident she merely expressed a concern that I was too argumentative and that I needed to learn to accept as truth that which is coming from a higher authority. That teacher feared for me . . . apparent for good cause.

Sarah December 12, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Thank you for this.

Katie Cadigan December 10, 2010 at 5:59 pm

I share you passion for overhauling public understanding of severe mental illness — and recently produced a PBS show (When Medicine Got it Wrong) tracing the evolution of mental health advocacy from old theories about the “schizophrenogenic mother” on through today’s battle for better and more accessible treatment.

I wish I could have ended the film celebrating success in the battle against stigma. Sadly stigma persists – despite decades-worth of scientific research showing these diseases have nothing to do with character flaws, moral weaknesses or rotten parenting.

Even more tragically, misplaced blame and misunderstanding lurk behind so many of our mental health care policies, resulting in the harsh reality that Los Angeles County Jail is now the largest psychiatric treatment facility in the nation. Imagine if the same were true for Alzheimers, with most suffering from its symptoms only able to get treatment when incarcerated.

I applaud Menninger and the many bright lights providing forward-thinking, compassionate, and evidence-based treatment. Its time our nation caught up with science and followed your example.

Katie Cadigan, producer
When Medicine Got it Wrong

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