As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Jonathan Metzl (@jonathanmetzl) is the Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Psychiatry, and the Director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He received his MD from the University of Missouri, MA in humanities/poetics and Psychiatric internship/residency from Stanford University, and PhD in American Culture from University of Michigan, A 2008 Guggenheim fellow, Professor Metzl has written extensively for medical, psychiatric, and popular publications. His books include Dying of Whiteness, The Protest Psychosis, Prozac on the Couch, andAgainst Health: How Health Became the New Morality.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
I trained first as an MD psychiatrist, where I learned about ways to diagnose and treat mental illness. But over the course of my training I became increasingly aware of the many ways that attitudes and stigmas about mental illness are shaped by social issues — and so I went back to school for a PhD studying mental illness stigma from sociological and historical perspectives. I now combine these avenues of training in my work — which studies how mental illness stigma influences everything from pharmaceutical advertisements, to suicide rates, to prison populations. I also speak in the media frequently about these issues as well.
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?
My research shows two important factors that contribute to stigma. First, stigmas against many mental illnesses, from depression to schizophrenia, have very long histories. I show how important it is for us to understand these histories in order to address stigma in the present day. And second, I show how stigma against mental illness often “intersects” with other kinds of bias, like sexism or racism. I thus argue that it’s also important to understand how stigma does not exist in a vacuum.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I write books, teach classes, and give talks.
For instance, here is my last book, about stigma, racism, and schizophrenia: https://www.amazon.com/Protest-Psychosis-Schizophrenia-Became-Disease/dp/0807001279
And here is my forthcoming book, about gun suicide in white America, https://www.dyingofwhiteness.com/
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
I chose topics that are near and dear to me — because I’ve seen so many people suffer from mental illness, and because I feel that mental health professions don’t put enough emphasis on wellness, or what we can do to feel better and stay that way! Illness and wellness are points on a spectrum, after all.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
For sure, US society needs to provide better mental health services, make sure mental illness is treated on parity with other kinds of disease. Community based prevention strategies are also vital, as are better infrastructures for health and healthcare. Flawed as it was, the Affordable Care Acts (ACA) promoted all of these strategies — I was sorry that the mental health community (esp the APA) did not speak out more forcefully in its defense.
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?
- Exercise: I am a huge proponent of the mental health importance of exercise — I have a brother, Dr. Jordan Metzl, who is a sports doctor and who promotes this message passionately. So I try my best to work out regularly.
- Zen: I try to detach from screen time for a set period each day — which for me is really not that easy, since messages are always coming in.
- Teach and Learn: I teach — my students truly inspire me, challenge me, and teach me.
- Connect: I come from a large family and we’re somewhat spread out across the country, so do my best to call and visit everyone regularly.
- Articulate: You can never develop a full enough vocabulary for telling people you care about how much you appreciate them. Keep adding to that lexicon.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
I find it always humbling and useful to look at representations of mental illness and mental health in literature, poetry, and art. For instance, I sometimes encourage my students to research the sometimes counterintuitive uses of terms connoting mental illness and health in poems, using the resource at https://www.poetryfoundation.org. One of the most personally meaningful projects I’ve worked on studied use of the term “schizophrenia” in music lyrics, using databases such as https://www.lyrics.com. The paper is at, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/transition.115.23?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!