Some in Summit County say the mental health stigma is still there, but efforts are underway to overcome it
Kay Harrison wanted out.
Harrison felt like she was in such a dark, deep hole she was unable to recognize colors. Getting out of bed each morning became a near-impossible struggle.
The death of one of her children and another’s battle with cancer didn’t compare to the darkness and depression she was feeling.
Harrison had lost all hope. She attempted to take her own life.
“When a person that is in that deep, and I know this to be a fact from other people who have been in that place, you think that everyone will be better off if I’m gone,” she said. “It will only be a wrinkle in their lives. It is not being selfish. It is just a matter of being in so much pain that I wanted out. I can hardly describe how dark it is.”
Harrison spent more than a week in a hospital in Southern California after her attempt. The hospital she was admitted to happened to be the one where she worked as an administrator. None of her colleagues or close friends knew why she was there or that she had battled with anxiety and depression since she was a child.
Harrison moved to Park City with her husband three years ago shortly after her suicide attempt. She has received what she refers to as “excellent therapy” and only recently began sharing her story with close friends.
People don’t talk about mental illness, she said. It was a secret that she had kept hidden her entire life, and it was a significant weight for her to bear, until she came to Park City.
“I think Park City is ahead of the game,” she said.
Starting the conversation
Harrison struggled with disclosing her illness because of the stigma often attached to mental health issues. Few people are willing to discuss their struggles, especially if they are well known in their community, like Harrison was.
But, more people in Summit County have decided to share their stories over the last several years.
A community-wide movement has helped sparked conversations and created a sense of place for people struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.
When Ed and Lynne Rutan decided to share their experiences in 2015 about navigating the county’s mental health and substance abuse system with their son, the disclosure kicked off the effort to begin tackling the county’s gaps in mental health services.
From those initial conversations, the nonprofit CONNECT Summit County was formed and, eventually, Summit County’s Mental Wellness Alliance took shape. The organizations now work closely with the county to help tackle mental health issues. CONNECT even hosts events and speaker series’ throughout the month of May in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month.
The community has made significant strides over the last four years when it comes to mental health and substance abuse services. But, officials and community members say there is still much more that needs to be done.
“The way the community has engaged over the past several years has been fantastic,” Ed Rutan said. “But, we need to remember that this is a 10 year or more project to get to where we need to be on mental health. … To be successful, we’ve got to get moving on multiple new significant initiatives every year, year in and year out.”
Rich Bullough, director of the Summit County Health Department, said the community-wide initiative became “bigger than I could have anticipated.”
“We have known there were unmet needs and we have known that people weren’t speaking publicly and that there was a stigma,” he said. “We haven’t been able to define, until fairly recently, how big the need is and how sweeping this issue is. I think now we have a clearer idea.”
Bullough said he has been meeting with community members and health officials recently in an attempt to regroup and take a breath. He said it is time to define “where we are and where we are going” over the next five to 10 years.
“We need to have a clear vision of where we want to be every few years,” he said. “I am very confident that in five or 10 years our county will be in a very different place with respect to both providing for and also making sure we meet the needs of our community.”
Aaron Newman, Summit County’s mental health and substance abuse coordinator, commended the community’s level of engagement. He said people continue to be active in the committees dedicated to mental health and substance abuse, with participation continuing to grow.
“We have come a long way. We have seen it grow leaps and bounds and that is just an example of people’s willingness to talk,” he said. “But, we still have a long way to go.”
Lynne Rutan said, unfortunately, the stigma associated with mental health and substance abuse will not be easy to overcome. She added, “It will be with us for a very long time.”
Rutan remembers when the effort began there weren’t really public conversations taking place about mental health issues in Summit County.
“But, through all of the education and community awareness building, I think we have moved ahead substantially,” she said. “We can see a difference. It’s been amazing how many organizations and how many people have really gotten together to move this forward. But, it is a long haul.”
So why is Harrison choosing to share her story now with her new friends and community while the stigma still exists?
“I just feel like I survived and I feel like I have a responsibility,” she said. “It wasn’t until this past November that it hit me. What would have prevented me from trying to take my own life is if I had heard someone speaking in a meeting or anywhere that I could have related to.”
Harrison commended the community’s dedication over the last few years to increase the number of services that are available. She said it is critical.
But, she encouraged even more conversation and even more acceptance. That, she said, will make the biggest difference.
Harrison said she was willing to share the most private and intimate parts of her life because of the prevalence of suicide and mental health illnesses.
“I survived when I know I should have died,” she said. “So few people are willing to talk about it. … I want people to understand that it is like any other illness. It gets a lot of bad, negative attention. But, we need to allow people to recognize that there is help.”
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