Our community cares

Jeff vonKaenel

I am not sure what I expected when I agreed to go to a daylong workshop called “Creating Community Solutions: Part of a National Conversation on Mental Health.”

Maybe it would consist of some mental-health providers sharing their perspectives? Maybe a long list of informed speakers talking to audience members who are looking at their smartphones under the table? But I can tell you what I did not expect: around 350 people, primarily young people, willing to sit in a windowless room at the Sacramento Convention Center on a beautiful Saturday, talking with each other about mental-health issues for six hours.

But it wasn’t just talk. People were listening. At each of the tables of eight, there was a dialogue, a dialogue about something important. Something that mattered or something personal. Or something liberating once it was brought out into the open. It was very refreshing.

The idea for this day came from President Barack Obama, who proposed in January that we have a national conversation on mental health to help reduce the shame and secrecy associated with mental illness. This was one of many such events that will be held around the country.

When I hear politicians suggest dialogue instead of funding programs, I am usually skeptical. But mental health, like many issues, needs dialogue. The misunderstandings, the misconceptions and the history need to be explored before there can be effective action.

The event organizers ran a tight ship, with the proper proportions of informed speakers, interesting questions and cool mobile devices. But the real stars at the event were the young people. There is a gigantic generational difference in attitude on mental illness. The younger people were much more accepting of others with mental illness and much more open to the idea of seeking treatment.

At one table, I spoke with Clarissa, a nursing student who facilitated the group discussion. Her mother, Kim, told me that she was the one with the mental illness that her family was dealing with. Both mother and daughter were very comfortable with the group discussion. Five hours into the event, I asked Kim what she thought of the day so far. With a sparkle in her eye, she told me that it gave her hope that society cares.

Does society care? I don’t know. But there was a large room full of people that cared. And, by the end of the day, they cared even more.The group filled out a survey. One of the questions was: “How confident are you that the participants in today’s discussion can develop an effective plan to address mental-health challenges in our community?” Forty-seven percent said “extremely or very confident.” Thirty-eight percent said “somewhat confident.”

Wow. That is a lot of confidence.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.