Four experts on mental health sit on a panel at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. From left to right they are: moderator Kenneth Rosenburg, psychiatrist and filmmaker; James Ashworth, interim chair of the Department of Psychology at the U; Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, psychiatrist and researcher at the U; Paula Cook, addiction specialist at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute; and Christena Huntsman Durham, vice chairperson and executive vice president of the Huntsman Foundation, which recently gave an unprecedented $150 million to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the U.

Destigmatizing mental illness

You’ve heard the stats—suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 through 34. Drug overdose is the leading accidental death in the United States. Mental illness and its aftereffects impact nearly all families, yet it is still associated with deep shame.

“One in 5 Utahns suffer from poor mental health and of those, less than half will seek and receive the care they need,” said Michael Good, CEO of U of U Health, as he addressed a packed room at the second annual Filmmakers Lodge Panel Series at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. “By improving access to medical health care, we also need to reduce the stigma of seeking treatment and the stigma that's associated with mental illness.”

As the Official Health & Wellness Sponsor, U of U Health partnered with Sundance for the panel titled “Destigmatizing Mental Illness Through Storytelling, Science, and Philanthropy,” and brought together experts on the front lines: James Ashworth, interim chair of the Department of Psychology at the U; Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, psychiatrist and researcher at the U; Paula Cook, addiction specialist at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute; and Christena Huntsman Durham, vice chairperson and executive vice president of the Huntsman Foundation, which recently gave an unprecedented $150 million to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the U. The moderator Kenneth Rosenberg, psychiatrist and screened portions of his documentary “Bedlam” throughout the panel. The film shares stories of patients living with serious mental illness, including his own sister’s losing battle with schizophrenia.

@theU edited the discussion for length and clarity. We’ll post the full discussion in the coming months.

Kenneth Rosenberg: How do we destigmatize mental illness? 

Christena Huntsman Durham, vice chairperson and executive vice president of the Huntsman Foundation

Christena Huntsman Durham: By sharing our stories.

We can't be afraid of sharing our stories, because it's in every single family. One of my favorite sayings from a good friend is, "You're only as sick as your secrets."

My sister and I were 17 minutes apart. We grew up together, we shared a bedroom together. We had all of our kids at the same time and she was my best friend. She dabbled with addictions in college, and she got married and had kids and she had been clean for almost 20 years. I think your brain doesn't forget that last drink, or the last bit of substance that you took. So, when she took that back up, her brain didn't forget. She struggled with alcohol and cocaine addiction, and she was a mother of seven children.

She overdosed about three years after we did an intervention and got her into treatment. She left seven beautiful children. Her brain was not healthy. It’s very easy for us to judge people and say, "Just tell them to stop." Or, "Just be happy." We don't talk about our brain not being healthy. If you're diabetic, you take your insulin and no one thinks twice about it, but we need to look at the mentally ill as a brain that's just not healthy so we can get them the help that they need.

Rosenberg: Thank you so much. You know, I didn’t tell everyone about my sister Arlene’s death until I was about 40 or 50. In fact, it's still hard to talk about. I've written a book about it. But it's still hard to talk about it. This affects 1 in 5 American families, but the shame and the stigma is really quite profound.

James Ashworth: By challenging health care’s discrimination of people with mental illness.

If I treat a population of people differently based on their illness, that's discrimination. And I believe we've been discriminating against the mentally ill for, I don't know, 100 years or more, as humans. Discrimination can come from one person discriminating against another, but also from systems.

Ask people who see the discriminations to say something. Mental illness touches everyone. The word “stigma” makes sense in some situations, but it's almost like a religious word, it's almost nice. What stigma really is, is discrimination. And what we need to start thinking about is, "Why is it that my health plan or my government or whatever, discriminates against the mentally ill? Why can't we get the same treatment for people with mental illness than we have for people with a more classic physical illness?"

If we could get everybody to start asking those questions in a thoughtful way, in a provocative way, talking to their legislators, their representatives, then I think would be really useful.

James Ashworth, interim chair of the Department of Psychology at the U

Rosenberg: If you had one intervention to change the state of people with serious mental illness, what would that be?

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, psychiatrist and researcher at the U

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd: Investing in new treatments.

I think there are some really good treatments for sure, and access is definitely a problem, but I think we can go further in developing treatments. I don't think we understand the mechanisms underlying the disorders. I don't think we understand the causation as well as the mechanism, the mechanism being at the time of onset of the illness.

I think our goal should be prevention, and early intervention's a great one, but we haven’t come very far. I still feel in serious mental illness, there are a lot of individuals who don't have a good quality of life. Not just because they were incarcerated or don't get adequate treatment, but because they are just getting by. I would like for us to think about ways to make that better. So, of course I'm a researcher, I'm going to advocate for more research, but I do think that we need it.

Paula Cook: Investing in medications that treat addiction.

Well, I'll just second that. I’m thinking about addictions, because that's what I'm passionate about and that’s what I know. We only have three FDA-approved medications to treat alcohol use disorder, which is the third leading cause of death in this country. The third. And we only have two medications that we use for opioid use disorder, and drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death in people under age 50. The leading cause of death, and yet we have 20 or 30 diabetes medications.

So, we haven't had the scientific interest, we haven't had the fiscal interest, and we haven't had the conversations from systems levels. Medical schools are not providing adequate education for providers to be able to address addiction. Some medical schools don't have even one hour of curriculum for addictions. The problem is really acute and that's what we need to change, we need to stand up on our soapboxes and be much more vocal about what's going on.

Paula Cook, addiction specialist at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute at the U.