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America’s Watershed Moment with Mental Illness & a Family Who Has Bridged the Divide

Part of the Hiding in Plain Sight blog series

Written by Hansa Bhargava, Senior Medical Director at WebMD and Medscape, Author and Pediatrician

September 9, 2021

Everyone knows someone who is touched by mental illness, whether it’s depression, anxiety, bipolar, or schizophrenia. More than 1 billion out of 7 billion people in the world live with or have some form of brain health / mental health issues. The global burden of this disease is $3 trillion, according to the World Economic Forum, and projected to exceed $6 trillion by 2030. The annual economic cost to the U.S. economy is over $1 trillion, without assigning a single dollar to the ‘incomparable’ value of lives that are lost every day. 

September is Suicide Awareness & Prevention Month. More than 200 people die by suicide each day in our country, and 2,000 attempt it. It’s the second leading cause of death for youth 10 to 24, and the leading cause for girls 10 to 15.

“Bottom line, we have been failing to adequately address mental health in our country. It should be a national emergency, but it is not,” says Garen Staglin, co-founder of One Mind, a leading brain health non-profit dedicated to accelerating collaborative research to enable individuals facing brain health challenges to build healthy productive lives. 

“Stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness, seeking help or simply talking about it, prevent us from doing something about it.” But the pandemic has created a watershed moment that can make a difference. Staglin continues, “The health of our brains is the greatest unmet medical need of our health care system today. We must finally move forward doing the things we’ve always known we needed to do but did not have the personal, political or national will to act upon. We don’t fight cancer with block grants, and we shouldn’t do it for mental health. The brain, the most complex organ in our bodies, receives the least amount of overall funding for research. Why?”

Sometimes, it takes a personal family experience to open up, to seek help and learn about mental illness, and to address the larger picture through our own lived experience with a loved one. Through understanding it within our own family, we can understand it among the larger human family. 

Shari and Garen Staglin spoke up and shared their learning, as parents of their 49-year old son Brandon, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 18. “You’re thrown into a world you don’t know,” Shari explains. “Regardless of your resources, you don’t know where to turn for treatment, or who to reach out to for support. As parents, the first thing that we needed, was to get ourselves educated about the disease so that we understood that it wasn’t our fault, that there are genetic underpinnings, and that these are diseases of brain chemicals, not character.”  

“I joined a parent group at UCSF. We found that when we talked to other parents, and even to our friends, they provided so much psychological support and ideas. And we also discovered that we were not alone. When we opened up, others opened up to us about their mental health experiences.” 

The Staglins are often called on to offer advice to other parents trying to figure out what they can do to help their loved ones. “Your key mission is to give ‘unconditional love’ to your child and seek help from experts. Early detection is a critical factor. Start with your family doctor, and depending on the age of your child, a pediatrician. Young people are experiencing symptoms as early as 10 years old, even earlier. Many families see something coming on but don’t know what the symptoms are, but now, centers around the country can help them understand what to look out for, and how to recognize symptoms, for treatment sooner.” 

“Work closely with your children to achieve goals together. Use family activities, from cooking to household chores, everything you can think of, to be creative and engage your loved one dealing with mental health issues, and to show that incremental goals can be met. It is reaffirming and fosters family bonding and healing together.”

For young people experiencing mental illness, “Your most important job is to get well and to do the hard work to try to get there. Use your brain, exercise it with brain games that capitalize on the neuroplasticity of our brains to change and rebuild pathways, and make them healthier. Depending on your mental health condition, you can choose the brain exercise that helps you the most. We do brain exercises along with our son, to improve our attention and memory.”

For families, your road ahead with mental illness may not seem easy. “Stigma causes people to run away from it, instead of toward it,” Garen shares. “But the time is now, the science has never been better, and we must embrace this as a cause that we can all get behind, and be open about. Exercise patience with yourself and others, because there is no silver bullet here, and these are chronic illnesses that can last a lifetime. But the most effective treatment is the ‘unconditional’ aspect of love — that must be constant and never wavering. I remember telling my son that if I could take this illness from him, I would, because I had already had a good life, and we wanted him to have a great life. We wanted him to have love and all things that are possible. Today, with the research we have seen, that translates into better treatments, it is possible and for Brandon, it’s a reality.”

After more than two decades on this journey, the Staglins shared a final piece of advice, “It’s very possible to get to ‘great’. Your ‘great,” the ‘great’ for your family, may be different than you thought before, different from our ‘great’, but ’great’ should be everyone’s objective. And as long as you’re treated as early as possible, and stay consistent and compliant with your medication and program, ‘great’ is possible.  

“Become an ambassador for mental health by learning to be comfortable telling your own story. Watch the reaction of others, and the openness it creates. You can bridge the divide.”

About the Author

Hansa Bhargava is Senior Medical Director at WebMD and Medscape, Author and Pediatrician

The “Hiding in Plain Sight” blog is a series leading to the upcoming 2022 documentary Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illnessproduced and directed by Ewers Brothers Productions, executive produced by Ken Burns, and presented by WETA, the PBS flagship station in our nation’s capital. 

If you are in crisis, or experiencing thoughts of suicide, please text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741), or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Related Series & Films is a mental health resource, not a crisis or suicide response website. If you are in crisis, or experiencing thoughts of suicide, please text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741), or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.