Once barely discussed, mental health is becoming an important topic of conversation. Keirston Parham, Lead Recovery and Peer Services Coordinator at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital and Western Behavioral Health discusses how to ask for help and how to support someone in need.

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– This podcast is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical care or advice. Clinicians should rely on their own medical judgments when advising their patients. Patients in need of medical care should consult their personal care provider.

– Once barely discussed, mental health is now becoming an important topic of conversation, but there’s still a long way to go. Hi, I’m Tonia Caruso. Welcome to this UPMC HealthBeat Podcast. And joining us right now is Keirston Parham. He’s a lead recovery and peer services coordinator at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital and Western Behavioral Health. Thank you so much for joining us.

– Thank you for having me.

– Mental health, such an important conversation. And, what do you want to say to folks right off the bat about why this is something we should be discussing and why it’s so important?

– For me, that’s real easy, you know? When we don’t discuss things, there’s consequences. You know, people die. So, absolutely, I think this is very important. When we don’t talk about things, we wait for something to go wrong and then talk about it. If you talk about the topic of suicide itself, having no information, no knowledge of it, what are the factors that lead to it, right, what are types of help you can get, and where do you get it, that’s the way that we can actually get in front of that. Also, just the fact that people are talking about it, it validates and it makes it easier for people to ask for help.

– There really has been steps forward in terms of having conversations about mental health, but there’s still a lot of stigma. And how would you really define stigma?

– Stigma is the thing that takes away from hope. You know, stigma is a thing where people are often just isolated and alone. It takes you away from the possibilities of receiving help. It takes you away from the possibilities of actually being able to feel like you believe in yourself. And it’s just not easy for someone to ask for help. It can be very challenging to do that. Stigma, in my opinion, it’s the greatest barrier to treatment and recovery. It’s the thing that prevents people from being able to make it to the door. You have a couple different types of stigma. You have self-stigma, where maybe because of a diagnosis, or a certain lived experience, or trauma, you don’t believe that you can accomplish goals. You don’t believe that you can move forward. There’s this other type of stigma where we’re looking at someone as a “them” versus a “us.”

– Right.

– And there is no “us” and “them.” One out of five people in America have mental health.

– So, you said one in five.

– One in five.

– Is it possible even more than that?

– It’s absolutely higher because we get our numbers from people who come and receive help and receive support.

– Do you feel we are moving in a direction where more people are talking about it? And what role does stigma still play in that?

– Right. I think that we are moving in the right direction. I don’t think that we’ll ever be done. That’s not a bad thing. I think it’s something that we need to be intentional about. When you talk about recovery, when you talk about providing support, being intentional about those things is very important.

– What do you think young people are bringing to the table in this conversation? If we talk about social media, I would assume there’s both good and bad from social media.

– Of course. It is a mixed bag because everything on social media is not necessarily positive. There’s sometimes unrealistic expectations in social media, right? People are making fun of things that really hurt people, and they’re unaware of who it might hurt, just trying to make fun or make a joke. I would say on the good side, it does allow a platform for people to speak their truth. It does remind us often and more often than in the past of different resources or different ways to communicate.

– What do you say to someone who might think, “Oh, I should maybe go get some help, but, you know, maybe this is just situational depression.” How do you know when you should go and seek help?

– Suffering in silence is a bad thing. It is a really bad thing. It leaves people alone, and it leaves people thinking there literally are no options. First and foremost, it’s a big step if you’re even talking about it. It’s just not easy to do. We often feel like no one else is going to get it. I remember I was, what, 12, maybe 13 years old, and I had wrote a paper on depression. Keep in mind, this is a 12-year-old definition, but my definition of depression was “Depression’s the loneliest place on earth.” We all visit it, and yet, it’s the loneliest place. It’s a place where others can’t reach you. And it’s a place where you can’t see and feel yourself either. Back to your question, you know, just someone even being able to say to you that, “I’m thinking I might need help,” or “There’s something bothering me,” that’s a huge step forward. I do think that you don’t have to be a professional to support someone and have someone talk to you. I would acknowledge and validate that first step forward, that someone’s actually, you know, talking about it. Because in order for you to heal, there has to be acceptance. You have to be able to address and own your truth, the good and the bad. You have to be able to own it. But if it’s truth, you always have somewhere to go. You always have a place to take it. We live in a day and age where we want everybody, no matter who you are, to be able to see support, right? Feel connection, feel validation, feel hope, feel a sense of belonging, right? And no matter what race, what gender, what culture, what political affiliation, whatever you believed in, demographically, where you was raised, and life situations, diagnoses, all of those things, we want everybody to be able to get help.

– Can help just be a friend? What do you want people to keep in mind and to think about?

– If you have one person, take a chance, and share, and ask them to be with you. You’ve heard, “If you see something, say something.” If something’s off with anyone, ask questions. And not just a quick, “Hey, how are you?” Right? Sit down with them the way you and I are sitting and looking at one another, right? And, say, “Hey, you know, I just wanted to take a minute to connect with you.” You know, “I want to take a minute and talk.” Ask them what’s going on. Ask them how they’ve been. Ask them what type of challenges may be coming up, or are there any concerns that they may have? Listen at length. Listen empathetically. If you’re feeling low, if you’re in crisis, brain fight-flight-freeze, autopilot, you may be in a place where you don’t see your strengths. If you’re a supporter, one of the things that you can do to help provide hope, and fight stigma, and validate, is to identify strengths for an individual. It’s what we do to support people. We identify strengths when they’re unable to, until they can do it for themselves.

– So what happens if you are that person and you are helping, but now you do think maybe you’re not enough of support? When should someone seek professional help?

– We do have resolve here, right? We do have the Crisis Center. And, the person identifies the crisis. What one person may think is a crisis, another person may think is not a crisis, right? So, there is that. There’s no harm in reaching out to the Crisis Center, and it’s 24/7. You know, you can reach out to the Crisis Center. There’s a phone center there. They can pick it up 4 p.m., 4 a.m., 24/7, holidays. They don’t close. They’re there for people around the clock, around the year, right? So, there’s that. There are mobile teams that can come meet people where they’re at in the community and come support them, as well as the option to just drive or walk into the Crisis Center, where you need no appointment. You don’t have to have insurance. You can just come, and talk, and get some things off your chest. We also have the suicide hotline. 988: three numbers like 911, you know, hoping that’ll be easy to remember. 988. And, just like our Crisis Center, it’s 24/7. Between our hospital systems, between our outpatient services, between our crisis centers, there’s so many people like myself that’s waiting for you just to show up. And we’ll do all that we can to make sure that you’re going to be safe, that you’re going to be healthy, and you’re going to have a chance.

– I know that you’re so passionate about it. Tell me a little bit about your work.

– I love my work. I help to train, recruit, hire people who have lived experience, and we refer to those folks as peers, peer specialists, recovery specialists. They are a big key to hope. They are a huge piece of validation and stigma reduction because when you can self-identify with someone else who’s also gone through or has the same or similar things that you do, there’s nothing in the world I believe that provides hope quite like that. I personally have lived experience, and I grew up not disliking, but I grew up hating me. And, with that, and you may not be able to see it, but I have this tattoo that says “life,” and when you flip it, it says “death.” And it’s tatted on me to remind me how far I’ve come. So if you can see somebody else that has the same diagnosis, or even in some cases, multiple diagnoses, right? Maybe they have had the same type of traumas in their upbringing; or even in their adult life, same life situations; came from the same type of a community; have experienced things within their family or their community like you have. At the time, you may feel like there’s no hope for me and nobody gets it, nobody understands. Peers, we’re the ultimate “Me too.” That ability to share, it’s actually part of their role to actually share the trauma, the pain, the different things that they have gone through. And, so, other folks can see the hope and the resiliency.

– Right.

– And I think that every person who has lived experience has their own built-in blueprint and path to recovery and wellness. And it might not be the same for you or me, but sharing that, it really gives us not only hope and inspiration, but we can see possibilities that we were unable to see when we just felt isolated, alone, scared, not knowing what to do.

– Those who may be in need of help and those who are there and wanting to support someone, what are the key messages you would leave them both with?

– I would say that you never really know the impact that you make on someone, especially when you’re there during one of the most challenging or difficult times in their life. You could never fully know the impact that we have on one another. And, actually, also letting them know how incredibly brave and strong they are to be able to talk about that, and say that, and bring that up now. You realize how amazing that is, despite what one has gone through, that they’re able to do that. And you’re honored that it’s you; you’re the person out of all of the people on the earth who’s provided with this opportunity, this extra opportunity to care about a human being. It’s amazing. Understanding and knowing that, again, it’s not easy, it can be difficult, but also know that there is help. Know that you can do it. And there’s a lot of people thinking and feeling exactly the same way you do, right?

– Mm-hmm.

– But you do not have to take that step alone.

– What happens if someone does believe. They want to show up at the hospital, they want to get help, they want to call, but then they’re fearful. “In this moment, I want to call, but then, am I going to be labeled?” What do you want to say to people about what that process is like when you do show up to seek help?

– Right. Couple things for me, personally. One is I have no problem sharing when I was in pain. Two, I have no problem sharing myself, getting help, reaching out, but also appreciating how challenging that can be. And third and foremost, I’m going to validate you. It’s natural to be nervous, but guess what? I’m going to go to the hospital with you. I will sit there with you. I don’t care how long it takes. I’m your cheerleader, I’m your champion, and you’re mine. You’re not alone. We’re in this together. We’re going to go and make things better. Me sitting here with you right now is personal because I know that somewhere, it’s going to lead to someone living, being able to grow, being able to believe in themself, being able to take a chance one more time, get up, another day, try different, try harder for the sake of someone caring with their heart.

– Well, we thank you so much, KP, for coming in and talking with us today. Some really good information. We certainly appreciate your time.

– Thank you for having me.

– I’m Tonia Caruso. Thank you for joining us. This is UPMC HealthBeat.

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About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.