Imagine if people reacted to a friend or neighbor’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder or depression no differently than if they just learned that person has breast cancer or heart disease.

“Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness. It shouldn’t be

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks at the launch of the Campaign to Change Direction, March 4 in Washington, D.C.
First Lady Michelle Obama speaks at the launch of the Campaign to Change Direction, March 4 in Washington, D.C.

treated differently,” said First Lady Michelle Obama at a mental health summit in Washington, D.C. this week. “There should be absolutely no stigma around mental health. None. Zero.”

Normalizing mental illness in the United States will take a cultural shift, a shift that will hopefully begin as more and more people talk about it and share their stories. This was the message at Wednesday’s launch of the Campaign to Change Direction, a joint project between numerous mental health, business, nonprofit and government agencies that aims to break down the stigma surrounding mental health. First Lady Michelle Obama was the event’s keynote speaker.

The campaign asks people to pledge to learn and spread awareness of the five signs of emotional suffering that may indicate a person needs help: withdrawal, agitation, hopelessness, decline in personal care and change in personality (see sidebar, below).

We want these five signs of suffering to be as well-known as the warning signs for a stroke or heart attack, said Todd Mahr, a regional partner of the campaign in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, a physician and director of pediatric allergy and immunology at Gundersen Health Systems.

“We’re undertaking a marathon, not a sprint,” said Mahr. “With this launch, I have hope.”

The campaign’s ultimate goal is to change the landscape in America so that mental health has the

Bruce Cohen, producer of the 2012 movie "Silver Linings Playbook" speaks at the launch of the Campaign to Change DIrection.
Bruce Cohen, producer of the 2012 movie “Silver Linings Playbook” speaks at the launch of the Campaign to Change DIrection.

same importance and value as physical health. Campaign partners, from Aetna to Easter Seals and Volunteers of America, have pledged to host programs and distribute materials over the next five years to further the campaign’s mission of “changing the national conversation about mental health.”

“It is really time to flip the script on mental health in this country. Getting help is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength,” said Obama. “(Those who suffer from mental illness) should be able to get the help you need. End of story.”

According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an estimated 42.5 million Americans – about one in every five adults – experience a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.

“We want to create a new normal, where asking for help (for mental illness) is not a sign of weakness,” said Angelo McClain, CEO of the National Association for Social Workers. “We want people to be able to raise their hands and say ‘I need help’.”

At Wednesday’s event, the first lady urged people to listen, connect and offer compassion to those with mental illness so they can get the help they need.

“Reach out and have those tough conversations with a friend,” she said.FLOTUS

Obama’s keynote speech concluded a morning of discussion and talks on mental health issues. Video of the event was streamed live on the Internet and is posted at

“We will save lives in the year ahead,” Obama concluded. “Let’s roll up our sleeves and keep getting stuff done.”




Take five


The Campaign to Change Direction’s five signs that may mean someone is in emotional pain and needs help:

  • Personality change: Sudden or gradual changes in the way that someone typically behaves. He or she may behave in ways that don’t seem to fit the person’s values, or the person may just seem different.
  • Agitation: More frequent problems controlling temper, irritability or an inability to calm down. Symptoms may also include insomnia or explosive displays of anger in response to minor problems.
  • Withdrawal: Pulling away from family and friends, not taking part in activities the person used to enjoy. In more severe cases he or she may start missing school or work. These symptoms should not to be confused with the behavior of someone who is more introverted, but a marked change in someone’s typical sociability.
  • Poor self-care: A deterioration of personal hygiene, which may include things like not bathing or wearing unclean clothes. Lack of self-care can also include abuse of alcohol or illicit substances or engaging in other risky behaviors.
  • Hopelessness: An inability to hope or look forward to anything. Symptoms may also include feelings of worthlessness or guilt. May also include statements such as “The world would be better off without me,” which may be a sign of suicidality.




Be the change


For more information or to get involved with the Campaign to Change direction, visit




Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at


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