Thanks to public awareness campaigns, most American adults are familiar with the signs of a heart attack or a stroke. If we witness someone exhibiting those signs, many of us have an idea of how to respond quickly and potentially save a life. But what if the person isn’t clutching at his chest or one side of her face isn’t drooping, but instead he’s uncharacteristically agitated or withdrawn or expresses a perpetual sense of hopelessness? What’s the appropriate response then?
For those who aren’t trained mental health professionals, the answer may not be clear.
“As modern and advanced as we are, we still struggle to take care of people who are suffering and who are really challenging our ability to get the resources they need,” says Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour and the Campaign to Change Direction. While Give an Hour is a 10-year-old network of mental health professionals providing free services for U.S. troops, veterans, and their families and communities, the Campaign to Change Direction is a brand-new initiative of citizens, nonprofit organizations, and members of the private sector whose collective goal is to reinvent the culture of mental health in the United States.
It’s a lofty goal, agrees Van Dahlen, but the Washington, DC-based Campaign is taking a multiyear, multilevel approach, starting by creating a common language around mental health. And as has happened with physical health concerns like heart attacks and strokes, it will raise awareness of how to help.
“We’re all on a continuum of mental health, just like we are physical health,” says Van Dahlen. “We all have mental health every single day, depending on how we’re doing, what factors are affecting us in our lives, what predispositions we might have, what temperament, what tendencies, what trauma we’ve experienced, what life experiences we’ve had—and every day we might see in ourselves, or people we care about, the reflection of somebody struggling.”
Even when those people are close acquaintances, friends, or family members, people don’t always know how best to respond. The Campaign to Change Direction created a website and a poster with bold graphics that illustrate the five signs of diagnosable mental health conditions: personality change, agitation, withdrawal, poor self-care, and hopelessness.
“We give people a very simple way of grasping it by understanding, ‘I can recognize these signs,’” says Van Dahlen. “If you see them, be compassionate, step out of your own space. Reach out, connect, offer to help.” A clinical psychologist, Van Dahlen appreciates that mental health is complicated and complex, and that what’s often needed for the one in four Americans who have a diagnosable mental health condition is professional treatment. But at the same time, in many instances, less can be more.
“Ignoring is what often leads people to really struggle,” she says. And for some, that causes them to spiral out of control and “deteriorate, until they’re unable to access resources, or they feel that they’re unable to, and they end up on the street.” Van Dahlen recognizes that, even with familiar people, reaching out can feel uncomfortable in a way that helping someone in physical distress might not be. Mental health, she says, is at our very essence, and it can scare us.
“We feel, often, about ourselves, ‘I should be tougher, I should be stronger.’ And yet, when you ask people, ‘If you know somebody suffering because of something like this, would you help, would you reach out to somebody you know, somebody you care about?,’ the answer unanimously is yes,” she says.
Van Dahlen’s own mother has schizophrenia and for some time experienced homelessness. She expresses the hope that people have been kind to her mother, and makes a point herself of reaching out to people experiencing homelessness whom she encounters on the street.
“There are small things that we can all do that may lift that person in a way that allows them to seek help, to have hope, to reclaim some of the dignity that they’ve lost, because they are in this position in society where people walk past them as if they’re invisible,” she says.
The Campaign to Change Direction arose out of discussions at the 2013 White House National Conference on Mental Health. Van Dahlen has also worked closely with Joining Forces, First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative for military families. Van Dahlen recognizes that addressing the mental health challenges of members of the military and veterans won’t happen until the broader culture can fully grasp them—mental health, she observes, is not a military issue. And Mrs. Obama, who has championed mental well-being along with her efforts to improve the nation’s physical fitness, has been a supporter of the Campaign from the outset. It’s all part of shifting the dialogue about health in the United States.
Van Dahlen recently spoke about veteran and military mental health on Capitol Hill. Later, she said, people approached her to thank her for opening the door to talking with their spouse, father, or sister about mental health.
“They said, ‘Thank you for reminding me that we all have this, and thank you for giving us something very simple.’ People feel empowered, and whenever we empower people, good things happen,” she says.
This article was originally published to highlight the August 2015 theme of Mental Health Awareness. Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.