News / Health

Organization Works to Overcome Mental Health Stigma

Francine Eager (l) and Julie Herrera
Francine Eager (l) and Julie Herrera
Mike O'Sullivan

Millions of Americans struggle with depression and other mental health conditions.  Experts say the stigma surrounding mental illness is the biggest obstacle that keeps people from getting treatment.  A non-profit agency is helping through its mental health centers, and recently honored community leaders who are working to overcome the stigma.

Kita Curry heads the large organization called Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, named after an early supporter of the private agency.  Founded in 1942, the charity has 11 centers in and around Los Angeles, and employs 400 people, including social workers, counselors and therapists.  Curry says that like many of those the organization serves, she takes medication for depression.

“Now people would assume, oh no, you can not be depressed," said Curry. "You are the CEO of a big agency and you always seem to be so up and so energetic, but the truth is, I do.  And if I do not talk about it, then the stereotype once again remains that it is a shameful, embarrassing thing, a hopeless condition.”

Curry says half of Americans will experience mental illness in their lifetimes - depression, anxiety, or other psychological problems.  Some conditions are mild and others are moderate.  U.S. government statistics say one in twenty Americans has a serious disorder, and that figure does not include people with addictions.  

Those who work in the mental health field say help is available, and that part of their mission is educating the public.  The Didi Hirsch Center recently honored public figures for doing that, including actor Ed Harris and young film producers Logan and Noah Miller.  In their movie Touching Home, Logan and Noah told the story of their father, who struggled with mental illness and died homeless and alone in a jail cell.  Harris played the leading role, and the twin brother costarred in the film, as well as directing and writing it.

Another honoree was entrepreneur Jamie Masada, who founded the Hollywood comedy club The Laugh Factory.  Masada provides holiday meals for the homeless, works with underprivileged  children, and recently started a therapy program for comedians.

“They go up there, they help everybody," said Masada. "They get everybody laughing.  Laughter is a healer, heal everybody.  But everybody forget about the comedian.”

He says more than 80 comics have signed up for the therapy program.

Those who work the in the field of mental health say help is available, once a diagnosis is made, and that approaches include medication, individual therapy and group counseling.  They say the treatment must be tailored to an individual's needs.

The Didi Hirsch centers helped 70,000 people last year, including Francine Eager, who works at a center as a peer counselor.

“I suffer from depression," said Eager. "My diagnosis originally started off as manic depression because there would be times I would go wild about certain things lose control.  And then I also had a drug addiction at the time, so it kind of masked my depression.  And when it all failed and I had to crash, it woke my up and made me see that I needed some help.”

More than 30,000 people in the United States commit suicide each year, and many more try unsuccessfully to take their lives.  The Didi Hirsch Center is one of many groups that operate telephone hot lines that offer help.  

Julie Herrera has experienced those self-destructive feelings, but she says that with therapy, medication and support, she is coping with her problems at the center.

“I just felt like I was alone out there, on my own," said Herrera. "Finally, when I came here,  I got a therapist, I got on the right meds [medications] finally.  It's like a family here that I can relate to, you know?”  

Former U.S. congressman Patrick Kennedy has struggled with mental illness and addiction.  The eight-term member of Congress is the son of the late Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy and nephew of President John Kennedy.  Today, he is an advocate for increased scientific research into brain disorders, which he says will help us better understand psychiatric problems.  Kennedy was also among those honored for their work on mental health.

“The bottom line is that every American family has a child with autism, an parent with Alzheimer's, a cousin with Parkinson's, a brother, sister with addiction, depression, it's all brain-based," said Kennedy.

Mental health advocates say there is help for those with psychological problems, just as there are effective treatments for the physically ill.  They say the challenge is helping people understand that mental health conditions are nothing to be ashamed of.

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