“Historically, when we hear the words “mental health” we automatically think of “mental illness,” and that term has a lot of negative associations.” with Patty Boyd and Fotis Georgiadis

I think that, historically, when we hear the words “mental health” we automatically think of “mental illness,” and that term has a lot of negative associations. Mental illnesses can be difficult to treat, and many of us don’t have realistic expectations of what it takes to help someone feel better. It’s not like you can […]

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I think that, historically, when we hear the words “mental health” we automatically think of “mental illness,” and that term has a lot of negative associations. Mental illnesses can be difficult to treat, and many of us don’t have realistic expectations of what it takes to help someone feel better. It’s not like you can go to a doctor and have one treatment that makes everything better.

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Patty Boyd, RD, MPH, the Strategic Partnerships Manager at Tri-County Health Department near Denver, Colorado. As such, Patty oversees a coalition of 20 public and private health groups for the “Let’s Talk Colorado” campaign to reduce the stigma around seeking mental health care. Boyd earned a Bachelor of Science from Montana State University, completed a dietetic internship at Harvard University’s Beth Israel Hospital, and earned a Master’s Degree in Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley. Early in her career, she worked for Indian Health Services out of the Billings Office in Montana. Since living in Colorado, she spent many years in hospital administration with a focus on service line operations and has enjoyed the transition to public health. Boyd has policy experience is in the area of organ, tissue and eye donation and healthy eating/active living.

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

I actually didn’t choose mental health as a career path, it just sort of found me. All health departments in Colorado are required by law to work with our communities to identify important health priorities and develop a Public Health Improvement Plan. In 2013, as we were developing our Plan, our agency identified three areas of focus: obesity, access to healthcare and mental health, and 120 stakeholders from public and private health groups voted on which we should prioritize. The total was 2 to 1 in favor of working on mental health.

We didn’t even know where to land when we started, but as we got to work we realized the idea of tackling stigma was something everyone agreed was necessary. In public health, we do a lot of campaigns to raise awareness about communicable diseases- flu, hepatitis and so on. We realized we could approach the work as a “stigma busting” public awareness campaign and went from there.

So instead of it being a chosen career path, it just became my responsibility. I think it was actually helpful that I didn’t have a background in mental health, because I wasn’t rooted in any beliefs about the “right” way to address it. We didn’t have one psychiatrist or one therapist telling us “this is how you should be talking about mental health.” It allowed us to approach mental health and mental health stigma with an open mind and open eyes.

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?

I think that, historically, when we hear the words “mental health” we automatically think of “mental illness,” and that term has a lot of negative associations. Mental illnesses can be difficult to treat, and many of us don’t have realistic expectations of what it takes to help someone feel better. It’s not like you can go to a doctor and have one treatment that makes everything better.

Whenever I think about the stigma issue, I remember years ago when I broke my leg. I had no problem whatsoever telling any of my family or neighbors or coworkers how I broke it, how long I was in the hospital, how long my recovery would take or how much work I needed to miss.

I wonder if I would have been so open and willing to share if I had been in the hospital for a mental health issue. Would I have told anyone? Would I have shared those details? But I know that if I had, no one would have brought me a casserole.

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

I’m a scientist at heart, so I like to be guided by data. With funding from the Colorado Health Foundation, we hired a social norming firm (the FrameWorks Institute in Washington D.C.) to study the impact of our messaging during the first year of the campaign, and we rely pretty heavily on their recommendations.

One of the most important things we do is emphasize that mental health is something we all have, and that we all are somewhere on the mental health spectrum — some days we’re on top of things and we feel good about life, other days we may be losing sleep about job issues or family problems and feel like it’s all too much. We all have good days, and we all have bad days when we need to talk to someone. It’s so important to spread that message, to let someone know they’re not alone when they’re struggling.

Another aspect we try to educate everyone about is that mental health really is a communal issue. In the mental health world, we run up against themes of individualism all the time, especially here in Colorado where the “cowboy” mentality is in our DNA.

When someone in your family is struggling, it affects everyone in the family. If someone you know has been struggling for a long time, and they get treatment and start feeling better, that has a positive effect on everyone around them. We’re all in this together.

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

Our funding comes through Colorado’s federally funded State Innovation Model grant, and it mandates that we focus specifically on stigma. The focus of the work we’ve been doing is the integration of mental health and physical health. We realized we need to help everyone understand how real stigma is. If we want people to seek help, if we want to move the needle and turn things around, we have to remove that barrier.

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

a. We have to really listen to others when they open up to us. A lot of the feedback we hear is that when someone who’s struggling does make the effort to reach out to someone, they don’t feel like they were really listened to, so if someone takes that step, just accept what they’re saying and let them know you hear them.

We also have to reach out to someone if we see that they just haven’t been themselves lately. Ask them if they’re OK, then keep asking. Someone may tell you “I’m fine” 99 times, but that 100th time they may finally let it out. Letting them know you care is critically important.

b. As a society we all have to be more thoughtful about how we portray mental health. Something the media often does that trickles down into our beliefs about mental health is the way shootings are always conflated with mental health. The reality is that anyone dealing with mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator of violence. Yet every time there’s a mass shooting in this country we hear reporters and news anchors talking about the shooters’ mental health, and I think that does a great disservice in perpetuating the stigma associated with mental health treatment.

c. Local, state and federal governments, and employers, can do more to promote parity between how we cover physical health and mental health. Workplace wellness policies and insurance plans should cover mental health care treatment just as they cover employees’ physical health care. You get paid time off for an injury, it should be the same for mental health treatment.

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. I quilt! I really value having some time for myself and I think too many people don’t prioritize that. It’s a way to remove myself from the realities of work, the news, or other potential stressors.

2. Volunteering. There’s a sense of connection you feel when you collaborate to help others. Volunteering gives me a sense of purpose and meaning I don’t get from any other activity.

3. Eating healthy. I try to choose healthy foods and avoid beating myself up when I indulge. I grew up on a farm, so I guess I’ve had an advantage there over some people, but evidence shows that eating healthier foods goes a long way to helping your mind feel better.

4. Exercise and staying active. Going for a walk isn’t the same as seeing a therapist, but it does clear the mind, and that burst of activity does a lot of good things for the brain, like stimulating endorphins.

5. When I am feeling down, I remember that I’m not alone. Everyone goes through periods of sadness or grief or times when we feel anxious about our lives. It isn’t always easy, but I remind myself that I have friends and family that have gone through the same things, and I reach out to them to talk.

6. I try to be mindful of the way I talk about my own mental health. I used to use words like “crazy” to describe when I was feeling a little unsettled, but since I’ve been involved in this work I realize that throwing those words around isn’t helpful, for those around me or for myself. Everyone is somewhere on the mental health spectrum and I try to focus on bridging those gaps rather than saying things that could reinforce stereotypes.

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

I still remember reading “My Left Foot” by Christy Brown when I was in high school. It’s an autobiography — he was born with cerebral palsy in the 1930s and overcame incredible obstacles to become a successful painter. It wasn’t specifically about mental health, but it really made me aware of how each of us has our own struggles, our own challenges, and that you can never really know what someone is going through or feeling unless they tell you about it. It also made me realize how fortunate I was.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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