Dan Collins of Mercy Medical Center: “Accentuate the positive”

Accentuate the positive. There’s so much anxiety and stress in our lives nowadays that you can’t avoid; so avoid the stress you can. Look for the good in things and not the negative. As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure […]

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Accentuate the positive. There’s so much anxiety and stress in our lives nowadays that you can’t avoid; so avoid the stress you can. Look for the good in things and not the negative.

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dan Collins, the Senior Director of Media Relations at Mercy Medical Center, a position he’s held for 23 years. A former full-time journalist with stints at the Washington Times and newspapers in Baltimore, Dan still works as a freelancer, writing theater reviews for The Beacon newspaper and for Dan served as an adjunct faculty member at Loyola University in Baltimore for 11 years where he taught a course in public relations. Dan is Secretary and co-founder of the Chesapeake Fencing Club in Baltimore. He is a community theater actor and local playwright. He is also sought out by media on a variety of topics, including as local handicapper for insights into the annual Preakness Stakes, and regarding mental illness, specifically the male perspective toward depression.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was an English literature and Creative Writing major in college (B.A., 1984, Loyola College, later University), so I had good writing skills which are the foundation for success whether in journalism or public relations, so it was a natural step for me to base my career in these two disciplines. Former Baltimore mayoral and Maryland gubernatorial press secretary Hirsh Goldberg recruited me for my first public relations job with an agency in downtown Baltimore in 1987, and that started my foray into PR. As I’ve always been a shy person, shyness born of my own issues with depression and anxiety, I find public relations to be a good form of daily therapy, as it makes me take action, deal with people, interact, communicate — not something that ever came very readily for me. But it’s helped, and thus helped make it possible for me to communicate my message about dealing with mental illness.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Human beings embrace what they can see. You can’t “see” mental illness, not like you can see someone whose leg is in a cast, or someone attached to an IV drip receiving chemotherapy. For many, if they can’t see it, it isn’t real. As a result, I think people have a tendency to view mental illness as a cop-out, i.e. “you’re just lazy, you need to focus, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it’s not like you’ve got cancer or something.” Plus, there’s been a lot of misinformation and misleading data out there about mental illness, i.e. mental illness = violent psychosis.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

For one thing, I’m a male, and if there is a stigma about mental illness, it’s particularly strong among men who, traditionally, are often reluctant to seek out professional medical care/advice of any kind, whether for physical or mental disorders. As I believe society’s mores and perceptions of masculinity change, getting away from the “a man just sucks it up and takes it, you don’t complain, cry, endure”-mentality, we are slowly starting to see this change, but we have a ways to go, so as a male diagnosed with major depression with OCD, I think it is important to speak out, to say, it’s okay, just because you have a mental illness doesn’t mean you’re “less of a man.” You’re just a man with mental illness. So, setting an example for more men to follow and speak out.

Secondly, my wife, Tina, was diagnosed with Schizo-Affective Disorder and has spent her life battling bipolar depression and mental illness. In 2016, in what was her first-ever public speaking engagement, she stood before a large crowd at Morgan State University in Baltimore and delivered a TEDx talk on her journey. Together, Tina and I both believe that education remains the best tool in combatting mental illness — if you talk about it, you take away a lot of the power it has over us.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

There’s nothing like suffering and hitting rock bottom to make you “take initiative.” In 1991 when I was officially diagnosed with major depression w/OCD, I truly went through a form of Hell. I remember thinking I’d rather have both my legs broken than have to deal with this; imagine undergoing a panic attack that just wouldn’t stop. Eventually, I found help and through talk and prescription therapy, pulled myself out of the pit. It was then that I decided to learn more about what was happening to me and to use my skills as a communicator to raise awareness.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

On the individual side, have an open mind. Don’t rush to judgment. I’ve found that what may be the most powerful daily motivating force for people is…SAFETY. We want to feel safe and secure. Learning a friend, family member or colleague has a mental illness can make one feel unsettled and insecure (What does bipolar disorder mean? What do you say to the person? How am I supposed to act around them?), and people’s response is often to “run away,” and that’s physically, mentally and emotionally. They deny it. Ignore it. Don’t want to hear about it. That needs to change, and that change needs to occur on a societal level. Getting our political, civic, religious and business leaders to embrace this notion, that mental illness isn’t something to “cover-up,” but to talk about and address, is key. Government-wise, we need much more funding to provide the necessary clinical infrastructure to care for those who are dealing with mental illness and who may be caring for those with mental illness (so support for both those with the disease and for their caregivers).

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  1. Make time for friends and family…having a good social network can be very helpful.
  2. Know yourself. I’ve come to learn the “tell-tale signs” that I may be slipping into a depressive episode.
  3. Take care of yourself — eat right, exercise, listen to music, read; if you don’t take care of yourself physically, you won’t be able to care for yourself mentally.
  4. Understand your illness, which, believe it or not, can have benefits; being OCD makes me very detail-oriented which is very helpful in my job; even in mental illness, there are silver linings to be found.
  5. Go outside your comfort zone. Sometimes you need to “shake yourself up.” Hence, my recent foray into acting.
  6. Accentuate the positive. There’s so much anxiety and stress in our lives nowadays that you can’t avoid; so avoid the stress you can. Look for the good in things and not the negative.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

I enjoyed William Styron’s DARKNESS VISIBLE. I liked what he said about depression being too weak a word to describe the destructive fury this disease can wield. And it taught me that you can’t think your way out of your problems, as so much of mental illness lies in emotional issues. Don’t self-medicate! Seek out help, and realize that mental illness isn’t like a cold, it isn’t just going to “go away,” but is a chronic condition that needs understanding and treatment…and realize that your illness can change as you change.

Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!

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