Burke employees

Burke employees take a moment to pause for a photo while discussing their new REAL campaign, which focuses on accepting mental health issues as real diagnoses, real reasons for action. To learn more about the campaign, visit myburke.org/REAL.

Editor’s Note: In observance of Mental Health Month, The Lufkin News is featuring local mental health stories and services throughout May.

The last year has given most Americans a good excuse to talk about mental illness.

Actor Robin Williams’ life was, to those on the outside, a roller coaster of comic energy. It was a roller coaster on the inside, too, but a much darker, desperate one. His suicide got America talking about mental illness, but it was a short conversation. Last month’s tragic plane crash in Europe started the conversation anew. The young pilot, who allegedly locked the captain out of the cockpit and intentionally crashed the plane, had been treated for depression. The horror is still fresh, but already the conversation about mental illness is fading again.

America has a mental health problem. And despite the fact that many of us know someone who is struggling with mental illness — or we are struggling ourselves — we still have difficulty talking about it.

“Mental illness is an incredible challenge for people,” said Susan Rushing, CEO of Burke, an East Texas mental health services provider. “Of course, they have to treat their illness. But unlike most other diseases or illnesses, they worry about what people will think of them. The stigma surrounding mental health is still a major barrier to treatment.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 62 million Americans experience mental illness a year. That’s approximately one in four adults and one in four children. The range of illnesses is vast: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and many others. The symptoms and treatments for each vary, but they have some important traits in common.

First, they are not imaginary or signs of weakness. They are illnesses that should be treated. Second, they don’t always go away if ignored. Third, and most encouraging, is that between 70 percent and 90 percent of people that seek and get help learn to manage their illness and improve their quality of life.

“I think Americans have a very strong, can-do, self-reliant attitude,” Rushing said. “And that’s good in most cases. But it’s not good with mental illnesses. We don’t ignore diabetes or try to treat it ourselves, we go to the doctor. Mental illness is a real illness, and there are real solutions.”

This month, Burke will launch its REAL campaign, in an effort to get people talking about mental illness and become comfortable asking for help. The REAL campaign will consist of outreach through media, schools, businesses, civic organizations and churches.

High-profile news stories about mental illness present an opportunity and a challenge in educating people about symptoms and treatments. As with Robin Williams’ suicide and the German airline crash, these incidents garner a lot of media attention which allows mental health advocates to better reach people with information. Yet the tragedy of such stories — what makes them national news — is so dramatic it may scare people and prevent them from talking openly about what they may be experiencing. These are important opportunities for people to bring up the topic with children, students, friends or others that may be struggling.

“Every suicide is a tragedy,” said James Smith, Burke’s director of mental health operations. “But people with a mental illness need to know about the thousands of people every day that get help, manage their illness and get better. Those stories don’t make the news.”

“The bottom line is that we as a community simply don’t talk about the health of our minds like we should,” Rushing said. “We have to change that. We have to make it OK for kids to express their worries and anxieties to their parents or teachers, and for us adults to talk about it with our friends and family. Talking about it truly is the first step, and it’s a critical one.”

To be involved in the national conversation on mental health, visit creatingcommunitysolutions.org/texttalkact. Locally, Burke’s REAL campaign has begun a focus on accepting mental health issues as real diagnoses, real reasons for action. You can learn more about mental illness and download fact sheets at Burke’s REAL campaign site at myburke.org/REAL.

Burke has provided mental health services in East Texas for 40 years. In addition to having numerous clinics that provide professional and confidential assessments and counseling in 12 East Texas counties, the organization has a mobile crisis outreach team that meets clients out in the community. It also operates the region’s 24-hour Mental Health Crisis Hotline (1-800-392-8343).