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Our View: Really, it's OK to discuss mental health

Nate Beeler/Cagle Cartoons

Of course it's all right to talk publicly and without shame or reservation about mental health issues. We all know that.

Or do we?

The cold reality is that a stigma surrounding mental illness refuses to ease and is preventing those suffering from getting the possibly live-saving help they need. While one in four Americans experiences a mental illness, they're waiting an average of 10 years before seeking treatment.

"It's alarming," city of Duluth Wellness Coordinator Angel Hohenstein said in response to a News Tribune Opinion page inquiry last week. "Those who are suffering (are waiting so long to seek treatment) because they fear what others — co-workers, supervisors, etc. — might think of them and how it might impact their job performance. That stigma is the problem that needs to be addressed."

Hohenstein is part of an initiative just getting launched in Duluth to bring mental health out of the closet of shame and into the light of normalcy — or at least so it's considered the way physical ailments and illnesses are. Sick is sick. Or should be in our minds.

"We need to make it OK to talk about it and OK to seek help," Shannon Jorgenson, an independent volunteer for the initiative, known as "Make it OK," said in a statement.

It was Jorgenson who, last year when she was employee benefits administrator for the city, attended a symposium in the Twin Cities on mental health and who decided to bring the statewide effort north. With information and guidance from — developed in 2014 by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, and HealthPartners, based in Bloomington, Minn. — Jorgenson and Hohenstein made about 20 presentations last May. They shared information. They handed out literature. And they repeated a message: We have to be all right with talking openly and honestly about mental illness and its challenges.

A handful of Duluth and Duluth-area employers agreed. In June, a small group formed to raise awareness and to help remove the stigma of mental health from our workplaces and community.

That small group is now a full-fledged committee called Northland Healthy Minds. It's about 40 local businesses and organizations strong and is looking to recruit more members as it gears up for a month of awareness-raising activities and events in May for national Mental Health Awareness Month. It even has some funding via a grant from HealthPartners, Jorgenson reported.

"Our hope is to have the month of May filled with activities and events to help give people the tools they need to talk about mental illness and to connect them with the appropriate resources," Jorgenson said. "Mental illness and mental health are a top priority to employers and to our community."

The Northland Healthy Minds committee and its Make it OK initiative join related efforts, including Bridging Health Duluth.

"This should be a community conversation, not just an employee conversation," Hohenstein said.

That means it needs more of us. To be part of it or to commit an organization to this worthy cause, email or call (218) 591-4054.