By Ray and Connie Maternick
We were watching the President’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday night. As the speech droned on we were getting tired and almost ready to call it a night. We looked at each other and simultaneously said, almost sighing, he missed a very important opportunity. At that point we were just half listening, and about ready to hit the off button on the TV, when out of the blue, four words caught our attention.
“….Americans with Mental Illness….”
I immediately went to the computer and pulled the transcript of the speech to get the context of what the President was saying. Read this carefully. This is what the President of the United Sates said:
“I want future generations to know that we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we are a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen: man and woman, young and old, black and white, Latino and Asian, immigrant and Native American, gay and straight, Americans with mental illness or physical disability. Everybody matters.”
I actually had to read it a couple of times just to make sure I was not misreading the statement.
In most cases, the term “mental illness” is mentioned in context of controversial political issues such as gun control. However, President Obama mentioned “Mental Illness” in an entirely different context, one that I had never heard before.
He specifically called out mental illness as an equal group with value, dignity and worth. He included those who struggle with mental illness equally with gender, color, race, age and sexual preference. Then he summed it all up with these two empowering words “everybody matters.”
Wow-this is a ground-breaking statement. We wondered if anyone else picked up on this and the real significance of its power.
He essentially included “Americans with mental illness” as another aspect of our diversity!
One does not choose to be mentally ill. It is a disease of the brain, a card you are dealt; an illness with which the afflicted individual must learn to cope. This is a great way to look at people who have mental illness versus seeing them as “mentally ill.”
In this way they are not defined by their illness, but viewed as individuals who are valiantly struggling with a debilitating illness. Putting those who struggle with mental illness in this context, with other groups who are “different” in one way or another, gives them the same dignity, value and basic humanity as all others. In our opinion, including those who struggle with mental illness in the list of diverse groups that comprise our great country was a very telling and truthful comment.
This is not the first time the President has emphasized those who struggle with mental illness. In June 2013, President Barack Obama kicked off the White House’s National Conference on Mental Health. In addition to the President, the event was attended by Vice President Joe Biden and other members of the president’s Cabinet, as well as activists and celebrities Glenn Close and Bradley Cooper.
In his opening remarks the President said he hoped the event will “elevate the conversation on mental health to a national level” by “bringing mental illness out of the shadows…There should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love,” the president said. “We’ve got to get rid of that embarrassment. We’ve got to get rid of that stigma. Too many Americans who struggle with mental health illnesses are suffering in silence rather than seeking help.”
Still, even with words from the person who leads our Nation, “Americans with mental illness” continue to be marginalized, their existence swept under the rug, discounted and ignored, many remaining in the shadows due to fear of society’s ignorance and reaction.”
Now, the challenge is to make these statements by the President count and gain legs with the general public to further mobilize support, funding, and political will to implement positive change.
I have always believed that three basic elements are required to affect change and make a difference. The three elements are “Vision, Passion and Action.” With his speech the other night, the president has provided us with a non-partisan vision! Now we need to ignite the passion of the people of this country to want to help and provide support for those who struggle with mental illness. Finally, our country and we as individuals need to take the action necessary to make positive and lifesaving changes in our Mental Health Policies, infrastructures and system of support and treatment. We need to continue to call attention to the inclusion of people, our neighbors, friends, family members with mental illness. We need to get people thinking about those with mental illness and recognize this as another category of society with value, worth and significance in their lives. This is a mindset we all need to encourage and foster in our daily interactions.
How do we know when the stigma has been reduced to the point where the balance of public support has shifted towards truly helping and caring about those with mental illness?
This balance shifts and becomes apparent when the general public (specifically those who do not have a family member of friend who suffers from mental illness) begin to understand that mental illness can strike anyone in any family of any economic stature. The balance is tilted in favor of support when the general public is able to empathize with complete “strangers” and their families, like Ronald Hunter Jr., Zac Pogliano, Jacob P. Stafford-Riches, Robin Williams, Matthew Ajibade, Reginald Latson, Josh Francisco, and tens of thousands more who valiantly struggled with this disease of the brain until their lives ended way too early and millions more who are currently struggling with mental illness.
Our son, Andrew, struggles with serious mental illness and fortunately is currently getting help in a State Hospital. He is very mindful of his illness and spends his time learning to cope with his illness and making the best of his situation. He writes poetry and songs. One particular song that he wrote early on, when his illness first began to manifest itself, stands out to us. It is called “Perfect Harmony” and relates to the President’s statement that everyone matters and has dignity and value. The reason is because we are all made from the same material, we just wear different clothes…..we are all one Humanity. As my son writes:
Let’s come together, we’re all people of clay
No one’s better from love we all stray
Let’s come together and return to the day
Of forever and in the garden we’ll play
In perfect harmony
And in the garden we’ll play
In perfect harmony
Remember: EVERYBODY MATTERS!!
Ray, Connie and Andrew