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First Lady: Mental Illness Should Carry No Stigma

By Terri Moon Cronk DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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WASHINGTON, March 04, 2015 — The military reaches out to assist troubled service members, and helping people with mental health issues “is what we’ve got to do for every single person in our own lives,” First Lady Michelle Obama told attendees at a conference here today.

As part of the White House’s Joining Forces initiative, the first lady addressed mental-health professionals at the “Give An Hour” conference at the Newseum.

Give an Hour is a nonprofit organization that develops networks of volunteers to provide free counseling to troops, veterans and their families affected by the nation’s wars and works toward eliminating the stigma attached to seeking help for mental-health issues..

Just as the military community has, Obama said, all Americans should learn to recognize the distress indicators in family and friends.

Zero Room for Stigma

People who need help should not afraid to seek it because of how it will look to those around them, the first lady said. Mental health conditions often are perceived differently from diseases such as cancer, diabetes or asthma, she added.

“That makes no sense,” she said. “Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness. “So there should be absolutely no stigma around mental health. None. Zero.”

Nearly one in five adults -- more than 40 million Americans -- experience a diagnosable mental-health condition such as depression or anxiety every year, she noted.

“So it is really time to flip the script on mental health in this country,” Obama said. “It’s time. It’s time to tell everyone who’s dealing with a mental health issue that they’re not alone, and that getting support and treatment isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.”

One Veteran’s Struggles

To illustrate her point, Obama described the story of Ryan Rigdon, a Navy veteran who twice deployed to Iraq to disarm enemy bombs.

“[On] his first day on duty in Baghdad, Ryan and his team were sent out to dismantle explosives seven different times,” the first lady said. “Then Ryan encountered a live [improvised explosive device] that was camouflaged to look like a rock. Ryan didn’t have his protective suit on, and he knew the device could explode at any minute. So he flipped it over and disarmed it with his bare hands.”

Eventually, Obama said, Rigdon began to experience mental-health symptoms such as extreme emotional highs and lows, severe headaches, ringing in his ears and panic attacks. Once out of the military and back at home, he faced additional struggles with family issues, a sick child and difficulty finding employment.

Another sailor who noticed how Rigdon was struggling and encouraged him to seek help, the first lady said. After hitting rock bottom and nearly taking his life, she added, Rigdon sought help from Give an Hour through the Veterans Affairs Department.

Nation’s Veterans Are Not Alone

“In Ryan’s story we hear the story of far too many of our veterans: –- the struggle to adjust to a new life [and] the terrors and anxieties that just won’t go away, even when they’re back home, safe in their own beds,” the first lady said.

Not all veterans are plagued with mental-health issues, she added, but the veterans who do struggle are not alone.

Rigdon’s story could have ended in heartbreak, but the people in his life wouldn’t let that happen, the first lady said.

“The sailor who reached out to him, the co-worker who supported him, his wife who was there for him every day … they all showed Ryan that he didn’t have to do this alone, and they helped him to change direction.”

Learning From the Military Community

Offering support the military community has learned to provide to those in need is something all Americans should do for people in their own lives, the first lady said.

“We’ve got to listen, connect with them, offer our compassion so that our friends, families, neighbors and our veterans can get the help they need, just like we would if they were diagnosed with cancer or heart disease or anything else -- because we all know that our mental health is just as vital as our physical health,” she added. “So it’s time we started treating it that way.”

As part of the effort, the first lady told the audience, Give an Hour is co-sponsoring the Campaign to Change Direction with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA will provide subject-matter expertise and will coordinate federal outreach through the Veterans Affairs, Defense and Health and Human Services departments, she said.

(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)