Peeers walk photo by Shannon Eliot
What would make 150 people wearing “Stigma Stops with Me” t-shirts walk around a sprawling park early Saturday morning? Mental health. A few weeks ago, my colleagues from PEERS (Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services) and I held our first Mental Health and Wellness Walk at Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley. PEERS is a nonprofit group based in Oakland that advocates for people who use mental health services. The t-shirts we wore reflect our mission to end mental health stigma.
The walk was a kickoff to Mental Illness Awareness Week, held the first week in October every year and recognized nationally.
"By having both those with and without mental health challenges gather and show solidarity, we are dispelling stereotypes, and getting one step closer to ending mental health stigma and discrimination,” said PEERS Executive Director Khatera Aslami. Stigma, which refers to the negative attitudes toward those with mental health issues, often leads to discrimination. Discrimination can make it impossible for a person with mental health challenges gain access to basic needs such as housing, employment and medical care.
The day at the PEERS Mental Health and Wellness Walk was filled with music, art and good food.
While sitting on the sidelines listening to speakers address mental health stigma, I thought about my hometown, Oakland.
We talk with our friends and leaders about the killings, sex trafficking, poverty, drugs and other ills hurting our city.
But where is the discussion on mental health in relation to these issues? There are people in our neighborhoods suffering from trauma and depression at the minimum. Some are lucky enough to have access to resources for help. Others aren’t so lucky.
Still, mental health gets left out of the equation for what we need to better our city. According to a UCLA study, one in five Californians are living with some kind of mental health challenge. At PEERS, we understand one of the reasons why people are uncomfortable discussing mental health is because it carries such a heavy stigma. The community needs more education on the topic.
“People are scared to confront [mental health] because the normal message is if you’re diagnosed, it’s for a lifetime and the trajectory is downhill,” said Sally Zinman, a pioneer in the mental health patient rights movement who spoke at the walk. “Most of the people here who have been in the mental health system have proven that’s not true.”
Having a mental health condition doesn’t mean one can’t recover and have a quality life. Nor does it indicate someone is a weak person. Some of the strongest people I met were the speakers at the walk who bravely shared how they recovered from mental health conditions and continue to maintain their wellness.
“Don’t look down on us because we’re mentally challenged, “ said DeWitt Buckingham from the speakers bureau Black Men Speak. “We’re people, too.”
There were people in attendance diagnosed with such conditions as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and post traumatic stress disorder. These same people are also leaders, employees, spouses and parents. They are living, and the key word is “living” with their mental health condition.
After the walk, I drove back home to Oakland and thought about some of the participants I met. A number of them who use mental health services told me having support, a voice and knowing they’re not alone helps get them through. I wished everyone in our community with a mental health challenge had that kind of support. From the homeless man who sleeps on the deserted corner near my home, to the executive with a corner office in downtown Oakland, mental health affects all of us. And it will take all of us to put an end to mental health stigma and discrimination.
Speak out against mental health stigma and discrimination by taking the PEERS Facebook Pledge http://www.peersnet.org/pledges/makepledge