PBS' 'This Emotional Life': It's Time To Talk About Mental Health

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Every day, millions of us are dealing with emotional stresses and challenges. Maybe it's a difficult relationship with a coworker or loved one. Maybe it's anger, depression, uncontrollable anxiety or fear. Some of us are struggling as new parents. Others -- many others -- are dealing with the emotional difficulties that come with military deployment.

So what are we doing about it? If we're lucky, we turn to our friends or our family. If we're really lucky, we can find support from a professional. Some of us turn to clergy. Others turn to self-help strategies. Too many of us feel like we have nowhere to turn.

Regardless of where we are with our own emotional wellbeing, it's clear that there is one thing that we're not doing: talking about it.

As an educator, counselor, government leader and member of the military, I'm concerned that these conversations are not happening in our society. We do not talk about the building blocks of emotional wellness, or about steps that need to be taken to find happiness. We do not talk about the impact of depression on our society, or what we need to do for our military families to help them through the pressures of deployment. Many of us who work in this community spend our lives trying to bring these issues to the forefront, but too often they get swept under the rug.

As a society, we don't like to talk about mental health. To many of us, it's a scary topic -- something we don't understand and something that shouldn't be discussed at the dinner table. Studies estimate that our neglect of mental health costs our country $247 billion a year in lost productivity and treatment services. And yet we still don't talk about it enough.

At my agency -- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) -- it's our job to advance mental and substance use disorder prevention, treatment and recovery support services to promote health and wellness and reduce the costs of these disorders to society. We work hard every day to help Americans through their lives -- to help them find happiness. We base it on the premise that people of all ages, with or at risk for mental or substance use disorders, should have the opportunity for a fulfilling life that includes a job/education, a home, and meaningful personal relationships with friends and family.

Last week, we got some important help in the form of a three-part series on PBS that shined a bright spotlight on our happiness - what it is, what stands in the way and what we're all doing to try to find it. The series explores ways to improve our social relationships, cope with emotional issues, and become more positive, resilient individuals. And while we hope this series will provide help and information to those in need, the broadcast last week was only the beginning.

This Emotional Life isn't just a series -- it's a multi-platform outreach campaign extending over the next two years to create awareness, understanding and solutions surrounding emotional well-being. This is a unique opportunity to leverage the power of media to affect societal change -- in this case, in the area of mental health and emotional wellbeing. SAMHSA is working closely with the This Emotional Life team to make sure that the information, stories and resources that make up this unprecedented project get to the people who need them most. With leadership from the show's producers -- Vulcan Productions -- we're embarking on a groundbreaking campaign to connect people with information, and also to connect people with peer support that is so key to emotional wellness.

As much as anything else, we hope this project will spark a much needed dialogue in this country. Our limited conversation on the issue of mental health leads to lack of awareness, lack of attention -- and lack of action. It hurts our relationships, it affects our children and it weakens our communities. SAMHSA is proud to be a part of an innovative effort to ignite increased understanding and awareness of the most fundamental part of our health: our mental health.

A. Kathryn Power, M.Ed. is Director of the Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an operating division of the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).