I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak on a panel at the United Nations on behalf of myself, my organization iFred, and a group I am working with called FundaMentalSDG. I’d recently been working with Lisa Nichols and Sandra Yancey on speaking my truth, and decided it was time to tell my story. My whole story.
It is my hope that in doing so, people are inspired to get treatment for their own mental health issues so they can go on to lead productive and fulfilling lives, and also that companies start funding programs so that more have access to treatment. I’ve been sober for over 10 years. I’ve learned how to manage my PTSD, ADHD, and depression through meditation, exercise, family, friends, giving back, eating well, and getting quality sleep. Medication and therapy have taken me through the most difficult times, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to share my experiences in the hopes of helping others heal and gain access to much-needed treatment and resources.
I’ve posted my speech below, and you can also watch it via video on the United Nations website. It is my deepest hope that my story inspires you into action to help both yourself and others affected by mental health challenges, most of them treatable. I believe that by us all working together to share stories, provide insight, and advocate change, real progress is made.
I am grateful to PsychCentral and the United Nations, along with others, for giving me the platform to get my message out to the world.
My Passionate Plea to the United Nations: I had five minutes to speak on a panel at the United Nations about “Mental Well-Being and Disability: Toward Accessible and Inclusive Sustainable Development Goals.” It got cut down to three minutes as we were way over in time and I was the last speaker, so I abbreviated it a bit in my talk, but this is basically what I said:
I am so grateful and honored to be here today. I am especially thankful for the invitation from the World Bank, and the United Nations for hosting this gathering of esteemed individuals, especially as tomorrow we collectively celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities honoring one billion people globally.
I commend you on your success with the Millennium Goals, especially in regard to the inclusion of AIDS and the outcome of fewer new HIV infections, increased access to treatment, reduction in stigma, and a recent estimate I saw of saving over 6.6 million lives. Amazing.
I am thankful for work to date for the Post-2015 Sustainable Development goals. Your mission is large, and an opportunity to expand on the great vision for the world. I’m here today on behalf of myself, my foundation iFred, and FundaMentalSDG, a group of global mental health experts and advocates, and the 600 million people with mental disabilities, to ask that you strengthen your language for mental health in the development goal and add specific indicators to measure progress.
Many speakers today gave facts for the “why.” There is adequate research that including mental health helps us meet other sustainable development goals, not to mention the $16 trillion projected cost to the economy for not doing so. The human rights crisis alone must initiate serious and immediate action as my colleagues have stated. So I will take a more personal approach, as I believe my story has relevance and insight.
My father was my greatest mentor. He was energetic, brilliant and committed to our family, celebrating Christmas with enthusiasm like no other and making my birthdays the absolute best. He came from little and made an impressive life for himself, finishing a Master’s degree and becoming a vice president at The First National Bank of Chicago. Everyone loved him, his generosity to others, and his passion for life.
He provided us kids experiences few had, including Wal-Mart annual meetings and learning from retailer great Sam Walton. On one particular annual meeting float trip, he even ensured I was the one that got to canoe with Jim Walton, where we then got stuck in a rainstorm and Jim built us a fire. It is a priceless memory, and all because of my dad and his desire for my happiness.
As maybe you can imagine, it was a total devastation when, as a freshman in college, I called my dad from my dorm room and heard a deep, unrecognizable voice on the other end. It was a policeman. My father had taken his life. In that second I lost my great hero; a person I admired, counted on, and loved more than anything in the world. I lost my dad.
I wish my story of depression and suicide ended there, tragic though it is. Unfortunately, as it is no surprise genetically, I struggled with depression and spent years escaping with alcohol, smoking, and addictions, all societal burdens that come as a consequence of untreated depression. In my early 20s, even after losing my father and never wanting that pain for others, I attempted to take my own life. It is a miracle that I am here with you today.
That shocking wake-up call got me to treatment. It gave me the health and focus to get an MBA in international business, and the necessary energy to work for great Fortune 500 companies becoming a productive contributor to the global economy. This is what happens when we accept and treat depression. I’ve since created my own company called The Mood Factory and launched a brand with over five million products sold in Lowes.
Getting my brain healthy also inspired me to start a foundation called iFred to eradicate stigma and rebrand depression using celebrity engagement, the sunflower as the international symbol for hope, and a Schools for Hope curriculum for 10-year-olds based on research that hope is a teachable skill. iFred and global mental health advocacy is my way of giving back to something that has taken so much, and it is an understatement when I say I have been blessed by my access to mental health care.
Unfortunately, most don’t have access to treatment or won’t get it due to stigma. Four hundred million around the world have depression, yet fewer than 50 percent are receiving treatment — up to even 85 to 90 percent in many countries, even though we have proven, cost-effective, and even money-saving treatments. We lose almost one million people a year to suicide, more than war and homicides combined, and we now have 1 in 9 children in the U.S. self-reporting suicide attempts prior to graduating high school. Yet all of this is preventable.
I believe stigma is the reason my father isn’t here with me today, and why it took me so long to get my own help. What is stigma? Quite simply, it is a lack of leadership that says the issue is OK and important to address. It is a negative brand, a misperception, a lack of understanding, and inadequate information. And stigma affects everything; funding, access to treatment, compliance, and relationships. Us working together to change stigma, changes everything.
My late mentor, Mr. Paul Carter, continued my dad’s traditions and took me to a few Saturday morning meetings at Wal-Mart. I was lucky enough to see Nancy Brinker from the Susan G. Komen Foundation speak about breast cancer in the 1980s, also once a highly stigmatized disease. I then watched how she and others transformed the stigma of breast cancer through policy, celebrity engagement, universal symbolism, and education. You at the UN have done this with AIDS in the millennium goals. This gives me great hope for depression and mental health.
I stand today in solidarity with depression survivors, those affected by the loss of someone they love to suicide, and others needing mental health support including those affected by autism, Asperger’s, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and PTSD. I am here to say modifying the Sustainable Development Goals with a strong target and specific indicators is the single most important thing we can do to end stigma and ultimately access to care. It sends a clear message to the world from the top, the United Nations, that there is no shame in asking for help and that the world leaders believe in treatment, equality, and human dignity for all.
Thank you so much.