The lobby of Eden House, a special apartment building in Washington, DC, is filled with brightly colored paintings of flowers, abstract swirls, and colors that conjure joy. The artist is someone I know well– an elegant and brave soul who channeled the traumas and challenges of her life into these beautiful works of art which brighten the entryway, and signal that hope can be found within.
I met Cheryl many years ago, when I was leading N Street Village, a community of hope and empowerment for women experiencing homelessness. When we met, she was in her 50’s and she spoke openly about a violent and traumatic childhood which led to mental health and substance abuse issues as she entered adulthood. By the time I met her she was in recovery and was serving as a leader in the community where she had become a beloved and respected elder. She provided basic help and emotional support to her peers, she helped new residents settle in, she encouraged others in their recovery, she spoke at City Council Hearings, and yes, even painted artwork for the common areas.
Cheryl, like many people I’ve met, proves the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity and demonstrates the impulse to give back in gratitude. Her struggles had not been easy, but they have not stopped her from living a life filled with purpose. Cheryl was not defined by her mental health concerns nor limited by them.
Too often, however, people living with mental health conditions and disabilities are held back from realizing their opportunity to thrive and flourish. They are held back by discrimination, bias, and misinformation and sometimes by their own internalized stigma. When individuals are held back in this way, communities are also deprived of the gifts and wisdom that come from full inclusion of all our members. Without Cheryl, the walls of her community might have been more stark and the atmosphere less bright.
I have taken Cheryl’s story to heart many times over the years, and I think of her often now in my role as President and CEO at Mental Health America. For more than 100 years, Mental Health America has led the fight for mental health and well-being. Our Affiliates are at work every day providing the vital conditions and community connections necessary for people like Cheryl to survive and to thrive. We champion the promotion of mental health, resilience, and recovery for all, and emphasize the significance of the social drivers of health – the vital conditions which everyone needs for safety and well-being.
According to our 2023 State of Mental Health in America Report, over 50 million Americans live with a mental illness, and over half (54.7%) of adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment. In our latest study, 42% of adults reported they were unable to receive necessary care because they could not afford it.
Cheryl found the hope and healing she needed at a local nonprofit provider. But not all who are struggling will find the support they need in the community where they live.
In the U.S., there are an estimated 350 individuals for every one mental health provider. However, these figures may actually be an overestimate of active mental health professionals, as it may include providers who are no longer practicing or accepting new patients. Equitable access and affordability are essential components of any effective mental health system – both for treating those with milder or transient conditions, and especially in providing for those with chronic or “disabling” conditions.
Historically, treatment of people experiencing mental health conditions has been based upon pervasive, false, and seriously harmful assumptions that they are incapable of making responsible or independent judgments about important aspects of their lives. Another harmful assumption that is often still made is that individuals with serious or disabling conditions are destined for a life without meaningful civic and community participation or vibrant social networks. While cultural and societal strides have been made, people with mental health and substance use conditions continue to be denied their full rights, face limitations in opportunity, and suffer from discrimination.
My friend Cheryl is just one example of a life well lived which disproves these damaging presumptions. Cheryl reminds us of what’s possible when people are recognized in their full humanity and provided with the conditions to flourish as their unique selves. Cheryl was not defined by her illness, but by her character and her potential.
At Mental Health America, we are committed to equitable opportunity and the protection of personal rights for all persons affected by mental health and substance use conditions, including children, adolescents and their families, and older adults. We support the enactment and enforcement of laws and policies designed to protect the rights of persons with mental health and substance use conditions, and we promote the innovative programming and the community-based solutions of our Affiliate network.
Achieving this vision requires “upstream” thinking about well-being and inclusion; this includes investing in mental health promotion and illness prevention and increasing awareness of the urgent need to address and disrupt disparities in mental health and well-being for communities who face the greatest discrimination and exclusion, especially BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. Perhaps most importantly, just as we have done throughout our history, we take our cue from those with lived experience – they are the experts on what harms, what helps, and what heals.
One time my friend Cheryl was giving a tour of her recovery housing community to a senior White House official. As she showed off the rooms and talked about the program she said to the official, “I’ve met lots of people and I’ve found out we’re all pretty much the same, just some people just have fancy titles – so welcome to the family.” Now that’s inclusion.
Schroeder Stribling is the President and CEO of Mental Health America, the nation’s leading community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting the overall mental health of all. She is a lifelong social justice advocate with over 20 years of experience managing organizations focused on mental health, homelessness, poverty, and racial justice.