When a young person falls and breaks his or her wrist while skateboarding, or during a soccer game, the next step is immediately clear: a trip to the local emergency room. It's pretty obvious to all involved -- the parents, friends, teammates -- that medical assistance and treatment will be required.
Unfortunately, when it comes to an emotional, mental, or spiritual "break" for that very same youth in our nation today, it's not so clear and easy. But it should be.
Our two foundations, Born This Way Foundation (BTWF) and The California Endowment (TCE), continue to work toward improving accessibility to mental health treatment and support, while reducing the stigma that so many young people -- and adults -- have about seeking mental health services. At BTWF, we approach the issue as a path towards, in the words of Lady Gaga, "a kinder, braver world." At TCE, we view wellness in young people as two sides of the same coin: physical health as one side, and mental and emotional well-being on the other.
On Monday, President Obama and Vice President Biden hosted a National Conference on Mental Health and reminded our nation about the critical importance of accessible, quality mental health services for the millions of Americans struggling with mental illness.
The price our nation pays for undiagnosed and untreated mental illness is both steep and broad. Nearly one in six young Americans will cope with mental illness in their lifetime. Mental illness costs our nation more than $60 billion annually in treatment costs -- much of this cost avoidable with earlier and more timely treatment intervention -- and more than one billion days of lost productivity to our economy. Suicide stubbornly remains a leading cause of death among young Americans; despite improvements in treatment outcomes of disease conditions like cancer and diabetes, we have not seen any meaningful decrease in teen and adult suicides over the past decade.
Moreover, the scourge of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness continues to painfully reveal itself in the form of stark, violent tragedy. In seemingly bucolic, safe communities like Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown, mental illness shows up as senseless violence. In Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and South Central Los Angeles, it too often shows itself as drive-by and gang shootings in distressed neighborhoods, and even near schools. Despite this, the vast majority of individuals with mental illnesses are non-violent and, in fact, are more likely to be the victims than perpetrators of crime.
Against this grim backdrop of depression, suicide, and violent tragedy, we may need to look to young people themselves to lead the charge against the stigma of mental illness and mental health treatment in America. Utilizing Lady Gaga's fan base and global social media following, The Born This Way Foundation employs the language of "bravery": to inspire standing up to bullying in schools and summoning the courage to seek help and counseling for young people who feel overwhelmed and isolated. The recent launch of the Bravest Map Ever is now beginning to organically take root and youth across the country will be able to find organizations within their communities where they can go to feel safe and supported: too many of our young people are suffering in silence because they believe they are alone and don't know where to turn for help.
We believe there is a need for a new narrative, a new strategy, and new tools to construct more inviting and welcoming pathways into mental health treatment. The millennials and younger generation will drive badly needed "new rules" on de-stigmatizing mental illness: using the explosion of social media platforms (the same tools that brought us the problem of cyber-bullying can deliver a positive narrative of cyber-wellness); entertainment and sports figures -- like Lady Gaga and NBA star Metta World Peace -- unafraid to lift the issue of mental illness in media and civic storytelling; and, perhaps jump-starting a consumer-driven demand for social-emotional wellness and learning in various services and products.
The key driving force for this new and emerging narrative about mental illness and mental wellness will be the young people themselves. Together, we believe they will erase the stigma of mental illness in America.
The messaging themes are as important as they are simple: 1) It's okay to talk about mental illness and mental health; 2) If you are experiencing mental health problems, you are not alone; 3) Help is available and effective; and, 4) If a friend or family member is experiencing a mental health or emotional problem, you can connect them to help.
This challenge is not rocket science. But the messaging needs rocket fuel.
Tweet your support for raising awareness about mental health by using the hashtag #MentalHealthMatters