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Simmons: Working to change the conversation, fight the stigma regarding mental illness, substance abuse

As a registered nurse and health care administrator, I am very comfortable talking about medical conditions and procedures both professionally and personally. However, when I realized that I might not have that same comfort level when discussing mental illness or substance abuse, it gave me pause. I am especially moved by an example that was shared with me recently.

Imagine if your neighbor was diagnosed with cancer and you saw her at the mailbox. You might ask how she’s doing and if there’s anything you can do to help.

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But what if that same neighbor has a mental health disorder or substance abuse issue instead? Would you respond the same way?

I hope that I would. As a society, we oftentimes don’t know what to say or how to help someone who has a mental health disease. And, the stigma surrounding mental illness and substance abuse sometimes prevents individuals from asking for help and receiving the appropriate treatment.

That’s why the Carroll Anti-Stigma Resilience Effort (C.A.R.E.) was established by The Partnership for a Healthier Carroll County.

Stigma was identified as a critical health issue by Carroll Hospital and The Partnership during the 2018 Community Health Needs Assessment, based on feedback from community members.

At Carroll Hospital, we see firsthand the challenges that individuals and family members face when dealing with substance abuse or mental health conditions. As a member of the Opioid Senior Policy Group in Carroll County, I see the broader community impact of substance abuse and the incredible efforts to address the crisis.

According to Dot Fox, executive director of The Partnership, “The goal of C.A.R.E. is to improve the lives of those struggling with a mental health or substance abuse concern by increasing knowledge, reducing discrimination and removing barriers to treatment and recovery.”

I know it’s not always easy to openly discuss or to know what to say to someone who is facing a mental health issue. But we must break these taboos and speak freely with one another and to those dealing with mental health and substance abuse.

It is not only important for that individual, but for the well-being of our entire community.

One simple way we can do this is by checking in with others who you know are struggling — maybe ask them to get a cup of coffee or go for a walk, and then take the time to ask, “How are you doing?”

Let them know that it’s OK to not be OK. Show them that you care and let them know help is available.

Watch an inspiring video that shows the power of asking someone how they are doing on The Partnership’s website, HealthyCarroll.org/C-A-R-E, and find additional resources.

Leslie Simmons, R.N., F.A.C.H.E., is the president of Carroll Hospital and executive vice president of LifeBridge Health.

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