Beyond the Hashtag: How to Advocate for Mental Health Reform

Too often, people and institutions of faith unknowingly stigmatize counseling, and by extension, the reasons people seek counseling: mental health, financial hardship, legal challenges, employment difficulties, etc.

Seeking counsel, or advice, is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ.  As Christians, our Gospel tells us that we all fall short of the Glory of God.  In short, we all have issues.  Our Gospel also celebrates our reaching out to God, and to others, for help. There is nothing stigmatizing when we seek the counsel of the Lord daily.  In time-honored hymns, we call God our “Wonderful Counselor.”  Yet no one is telling us not to use this language because it has a perception problem, that it connotes that we have “issues.” We have the opportunity to flip the script and educate our peers, our faith communities, and our policymakers about the importance of celebrating, not stigmatizing, those who seek counsel.

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, promotes the hashtag #Iamstigmafree.  While it is easy to encourage millennials to get behind a catchy hashtag, it is harder to garner support for governmental reforms.

Mental health public policy issues are complex, balancing a wide range of interests.  Yet, in an uncharacteristic move in this polarized election season, on Wednesday, March 16th, a bipartisan mental health reform bill was advanced by the Senate Health Committee unanimously by a voice vote. This proposed legislation, according to Peter Sullivan, “seeks to improve coordination of mental health programs by granting new powers to an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services and sets up a new office to encourage the adoption of evidence-based programs.” The bill also encourages insurance companies to provide better coverage for mental health challenges and sanctions grants for cross-disciplinary approaches to innovating mental health solutions.

Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) explained the anomaly of bipartisan support for this bill by saying, “Many of us, on both sides of the political aisle, believe there is a mental health crisis, and that's why so many of us are now focused on finding ways to address it.”

As Christians, we have a calling to seek justice for those who are oppressed and marginalized.  We are called by God to do this in our families and social networks, in our churches, in civil society organizations, and in political community. I will not shy away from the word counseling because of the stigma it might bring.  Likewise, I will continue to advocate through supporting civil society organizations like NAMI for public policies like S. 1945 that seek to provide more efficient and innovative solutions for mental health.

Just as we view wellness check-ups, pap-smears, screenings for cancer, and even sonograms as “preventative care” so too should we view depression screenings and proactive counseling as positive activities many of us will choose to take to avoid more serious “issues” down the line.  That should be something people of faith should be able to stand up for, both in our personal lives and in our political communities.

- ‎Chelsea Langston is the Director of Equipping and Membership for the Institutional Religious Freedom Allianceat the Center for Public Justice