Mental Health & Stigma Conversations with Patient Advocates Gabe Howard & Rie Lopez

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Did you know that 43.8 million adults experience mental illness in a given year (NIMH .org)? In an effort to amplify the voices of those living with or experiencing mental health or behavioral health issues, here are a few video discussions aiming to bring awareness to stigma and its effect on wellbeing.

GABE HOWARD is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. In 2003, he was formally diagnosed with bipolar and anxiety disorders after being committed to a psychiatric hospital.

“Its weird that in this country we separate out mental health and physical health because mental health is your brain. what’s more physical than your brain?

Rie Lopez, MPH A ‘Professional Patient’, Rie is a health educator, skilled public speaker and writer, and serves as a patient advocate for mental health, chronic pain conditions, and clinical trials.  Rie is also actively using her voice on social media

“ From a societal level trying to embrace that mental health is as important to our physical health. A lot of it comes down to making sure that people understand that they are as important”.  

Gabe and Rie are members of the Society for Participatory Medicine. Recorded at 2018 Connected Health Conference.

Gabe Howard Bipolar Speaker & Writer

It is my job, goal and life’s work to have more conversations surrounding mental, mental illness, and psychology because people experience this, yet most people aren’t talking about it 
— Gabe Howard


 Award-Winning Writer | Mental Health Activist | Sought-After Speaker| Educator

It is my job, goal and life's work to have more conversations surrounding mental, mental illness, and psychology because people experience this, yet most people aren't talking about it. When a mental crisis or a mental health illness issue occurs, we're sort of behind the A ball as a society because we don't know how to react. I'm looking to flip the script on that and get people to the knowledge before they need it rather than after.

I was formally diagnosed in 2003. I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and I really speak from experience when I say that I had to learn all of this after the fact. The day before I was diagnosed, I knew nothing about mental illness, nothing about mental health. I thought I was interested in physiology but I wasn't. Then, I'm diagnosed I'm in a hospital, in a locked psychiatric ward and I needed to learn everything instantly.

I really wished that I would of had a lot of knowledge ahead of time, because I think if I would of been diagnosed sooner, I probably wouldn't have been suicidal and in crisis. Thankfully, I ended up in a physiatrics hospital. I could of easily ended up in jail, or in a morgue, it could of turned out a lot worst.

Whats interesting is people are like "you were in a locked psychiatric ward, thats literally the worst case scenario". Interestingly, its not! Thats like the best case scenario for somebody that has untreated mental illness that their unaware of and that their doing nothing about, a psychiatric ward is the best case.

The worst thing about being in a psychiatric ward is, its a complete lack of control. Its locked, the doors are locked. Everything is controlled, and regimented. When I checked in they took stuff from me. The things that I brought in from home to make myself feel better in the hospital they were like "you can't have that". My girlfriend at the time brought me, my favorite drink and they were like, "no that has caffeine in it, he can't have it".

At the end of the first visit I wanted to walk her to the elevator, and they were like "no you can't". Thats kind of devastating to your psyche a little bit, because I'm like GROWN! their like "NO". It was for my own good, they were trying to keep me alive, I was there because I was suicidal. But from my perspective in that moment I just felt weak. Those are the things that I remembered; just how little agency I had.

I'm lucky for an incredible number of reasons. 1st, I'm lucky that I had money, my care over the next four years was a couple hundred thousand dollars. I was able to be hospitalized, I was able to see a psychiatrist every 4-6 weeks. I was able to try the best medications on the market. I was able to go to intensive outpatient treatment. I was able to go to the hospital for 8 hours a day 5 times a week. I was able to do that twice. I was able to go to support groups led by psychologist and psychiatrist, there wasn't really any sort of care that I wasn't able to afford. That was so important to me.

Secondly, I did have a good family, while they made a ton of mistakes they were there for me. They didn't run away from me, they were there for little things. My whole family helped me move out of my house into a smaller apartment when money got tight and when I lost my job. When I did lose my job, I had plenty of people to talk to me and say "Hey you're more than just a job, you're going to focus on wellness" and that pumped me up. Of course I had my number one (then girlfriend now wife), who was there for those really low points. Lastly, I worked very hard.

Somebody who doesn't have all those resources, they only can have one of those things, and that is to work really, really hard. Maybe, they can have two of those things, because they can work really, really hard and they have a really good family but if they don't have the money they are not going to have access to the same amount of care that I did.

Then even that fractures out, theres plenty of people that have good health insurance but maybe they live in rural America where these programs are not there or they can't afford these programs. Maybe they have the money but they don't have an number one, or a good family. If you don't know what to buy the amount of money isn't going to be helpful. You need to find a way to pay for treatment because treatment is so important. You need to take your medications as prescribed and get the right medications. You need to have a support system because thats so important.

There are things that you can do if you're not as fortunate as I was;

  1. Support can come from many different places, find peer support groups.

  2. Find consumer operated drop in centers.

  3. Find a sponsor.

  4. Find people who have been there; Theres lots of free support groups sponsored by mental health charities all over.

  5. Find a buddy, who is willing to help you and be respectful of their boundaries.

  6. Ask questions,

  7. Go to all of the appointments, even when you don't want to, even if you've been in the same clothes for five days and you haven't showered, find a way to get to that appointment. The people there will understand more than you think.

  8. If you don't have health insurance you have to find health insurance.

  9. Apply for disability, welfare, medicare, social services: some people that I talk to are like "I don't want to do that, I don't want to be a mooch". Listen, its a social safety net, for a reason. You're going to use that safety net to get well and then when you're well, you'll be happy, you'll go back to work, and your work and earnings will help fund these social nets for the next person

  10. Fight really hard for a better future, and find the things that you need.

As much as I hate to say it, it does boils down to advocacy, you're now sick and you have to advocate for yourself, this is an overwhelming task, but it is not an impossible one

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