Leaders overcoming stigma: Community mental health is for everyone.

May marks Mental Health MonthIn 2020, Dale Robertson, CEO of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, “came out” publicly about living with depression. Others in leadership positions as well as mental health professionals are doing their part to reduce stigma, too.
Dale Robertson, president and CEO, Grand Rapids Public Museum
Despite an increased awareness around symptoms and treatment options, a lot of stigma around seeking mental health care still exists. For leaders and professionals in esteemed positions and industries, this stigma can be even more difficult to overcome. 

Mental health does not discriminate. People in successful careers and esteemed professions may  still deal with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. In reality, these professionals are like the rest of us and have struggles, too. 

Dale Robertson, Grand Rapids Public Museum

For Grand Rapids Public Museum president and CEO Dale Robertson, admitting his own depression was a scary but life-changing revelation. Growing up “in a different era,” in the 50s, when treatment for mental health was totally different. Robertson recalls state hospitals and group homes as some of the only options. Before coming to the Museum in 2008, Robertson worked at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan for 19 years. 

“It wasn’t discussed as much as it is now,” Robertson says. “We had social missions that the company focused on, including domestic violence, fitness, and depression. The depression [mission] had a slogan attached to it, that [depression] was ‘real, common, and treatable.’ At that time, I hadn’t had any diagnosis myself, but I was in that place where I could feel there were things going on.”

Robertson’s wife noticed her husband wasn’t fully present in everyday situations, although he was physically there. She suggested he seek help. 

“I was with the family, engaged at work, but I wasn’t fully present,” Robertson says. “I remember having a moment at one point where things were closing in. Things got dark, but I could still see the blue sky above me. I wondered what would happen if it closed. That was an indication that I needed help, and with the encouragement of my family and my doctor, I found that.”
Dale Robertson on the job at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.Robertson is happy to see other national figures and prominent leaders come out and share their struggles and perspectives on their own mental health, too. He notes that people like politicians and athletes speaking about it is important, and that the key is to talk about it.

Today, it’s typical to be asked mental health questions even during physical exams, something that wasn’t the case in years prior. This is especially important since mental and physical health are so interconnected. In terms of treatment, Robertson also has noticed that physical activity is very beneficial for his mental health. 

“I really rely on physical activity as part of my own self-treatment plan for my mental health,” he says. “When there are times when I can’t get the exercise in, I can tell. I can begin to feel it.”

As a leader at the museum, he prioritizes his employees taking care of themselves and their mental health and is proud that they can access broad wellness benefits and support for their families. 

Robertson wrote an essay for MLive, speaking on his diagnosis, sharing with others that, like the slogan, depression is real, common, and treatable — like any other health issue. The response he’s received from sharing his story has been impactful, too. 

“Even though that story came out three years ago, even to this day, people will say something about it,” Robertson says. “I’m glad that people bring it up and glad that people talk to me about it. I appreciate that people have the willingness to come, engage, and speak with me about it.”

Meghan Taft, director of community engagement , Summit PointeMeghan Taft, Summit Pointe, Battle Creek

Within the health field, doctors, nurses, and therapists work day in and day out with patients experiencing the mental and physical symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. Keeping an honest, open, transparent self-inventory of mental health is important for these providers. Despite having an inherent need to help others, many medical practitioners can develop a fog around their own personal awareness. 

Summit Pointe director of community engagement Meghan Taft says increased education on recognizing the signs of mental illness and referrals to experts in treatment options helps patients and providers alike.

“When folks start a career in mental health services like social work, counseling, or psychology, you enter the profession with good intentions to help serve others,” she says. “There’s a want and a desire to help and heal. You maybe lack awareness of the impacts it’s having on you throughout that time because the want is so great to help others.”

Taft began her career as an outpatient therapist, training individuals with mental health and substance abuse disorder. She developed a true passion for community outreach regarding mental health and illness. Today, she also works with law enforcement partners, collaborating with local agencies and jails. 

With the national shortage of clinicians, the need for mental health care increases. When clinicians aren’t aware of their own mental health needs, the result can be burnout. 

“That’s a bad equation in terms of burnout,” Taft says. “If you have high need and not enough clinicians to meet the need, those clinicians that are attempting to meet the need have higher caseloads and volumes, individuals that require intensive follow-up and daily services.”

Taft says that, thankfully, the industry’s culture is supportive and the majority of employees are honest in their own personal mental health assessments. 

“We recognize it in one another,” she says. “In our profession, I’ve seen people talking about it openly, going to each other, and asking for recommendations of who to see – that’s always a question because you know a lot of the providers in the area. Going outside of the county you serve makes folks feel more comfortable.”

Being transparent about one’s own mental health is crucial to helping others improve theirs – much like airline passengers putting on their own oxygen masks before attempting to help others on the plane. 

“There have been plenty of times when I was a therapist, when I was explaining something like sleep hygiene practices to someone and sitting on the other side of the table thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m not implementing these things in my own life,'” Taft says. “Having those sorts of insights and continuing to take a self-inventory is important.”

Taft says Summit Pointe utilizes supportive services and tools – like giving staff days off to process an overdose in their waiting room. 

“We try diligently to make sure that our leadership provides that for our staff,” she says. “If we’re asking others to make their wellness or behavioral health a priority, we have to continually ask ourselves what we’re doing to do that. Most of us have ethical codes that require us to do that and to take that self-inventory and make sure we are able to provide the best care that we can.” 

Christy Buck, executive director, Mental Health Foundation of West MichiganChristy Buck, be.nice,  Grand Rapids

As executive director of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, Christy Buck’s founded be nice,  a mental health and suicide prevention program. Two of the program's areas of focus are businesses and faith communities. Reaching out to leaders in these sectors not only helps employees and congregation members but also let's those in leadership positions know how to reach out for help when they experience issues with their own mental health.  

“Churches and faith institutions themselves have come a long way when it comes to recognizing the validity of mental health concerns, illnesses, and treatment,” Buck says. “While prayer is not a solution to an illness, it can be a powerful protective factor along with the sense of community that being a member of a congregation can bring.”

Using a train-the-trainer method, the program helps educate leaders as liaisons and champions. 

“It’s then implemented in whatever means the faith institution sees as the best fit,” Buck says. “This might be teaching about each step of the action plan through a sermon series, hosting awareness events, or by providing resources on the bulletin or in the office or website.” 

That action plan action plan — notice changes in someone's behavior, invite them to recognize it, challenge them to get help, and empower them with resources for help — helps to reduce stigma at all levels of an organization.

“Since religion and faith leaders are often an outlet people turn to when they are struggling, clergy deserve to be educated in this arena,” Buck says. “Today, we acknowledge suicide is often the result of untreated depression, pain, and other sufferings. The be nice. faith training equips faith leaders with a road map to provide care for those at risk for suicide along with survivors and their families.”

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new, interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at sarahspohn.news@gmail.com.

Photos of Dale Robertson by Tommy Allen.
Meghan Taft photo courtesy Summit Pointe.
Christy Buck photo courtesy 
Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan.

The MI Mental Health series highlights the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens, and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from the Community Mental Health Association of MichiganCenter for Health and Research TransformationGenesee Health SystemMental Health Foundation of West MichiganNorth Country CMHNorthern Lakes CMH AuthorityOnPointSanilac County CMHSt. Clair County CMHSummit Pointe, and Washtenaw County CMH.
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