CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - One in five. That’s how many people experience a mental illness every year in the United States. That’s more than 43 million Americans. May has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949 in an effort to remove the stigma associated with mental health.
But doing that is no easy task. For Alicia Tetteh, a licensed therapist and founder of her practice, Attune, in Charlotte, the one thing that she has found to be really important is normalizing mental health.
“As a therapist, I’m very open about my own issues with anxiety because I really want to normalize things,” she said.
Normalization is so key because it shows people they're not alone. So many people suffer from mental illness or have mental health concerns -- but they suffer in silence. Experts say this is because the stigma associated with mental health. That somehow you're less of person if you have a mental illness.
That's why Tetteh says talking about it is so important.
“The work around decreasing the stigma starts with us” she pointed out. “It starts with what you and I are doing right here, right now, in having this conversation. And the hope is it will spark someone to say, ‘Ok, it’s not just me. Let me go and see about that.’ The more open conversations we have, people won’t feel like they’re alone and that’s a really big one. A lot of people are suffering and they feel like, ‘it’s just me’.”
Tetteh told me she is also really trying to change how people view therapy. She encourages you to see it as a way to be proactive -- instead of reactive.
“So you can go to therapy when things are good,” she points out. “It’s called maintenance. I’m in therapy now for maintenance, right? Not because things are crashing down. So -- really trying to change this idea that ‘I can only go when something is wrong.’ You can go when something is good, too, to prepare you for when things happens.”
She says another issue when it comes to removing the stigma is looking at how faith and mental health intersect because there are a lot of people who don't seek help because of their faith -- or how their families may view going to therapy. Tetteh says asking clients how their families feel about them being in therapy is a question she often asks.
“Some people will say ‘yeah, they’re really supportive and they’re very happy for me’ and other people say ‘I can’t tell them’ because they’ve already – ‘I’ve went to them and they tell me to pray it away’,” she said. “Or, ‘I’ve went to them and they tell me nothing is wrong’.”
Tetteh tries to change the perspective by pointing out that a person’s faith should be a source of support.
“Then I may steer the conversation in the direction of ‘OK, well if you feel like God created everyone, that means he created therapists, too’,” she said. “So he created dentists and that’s who fixes your teeth and he created doctors who deliver your babies and fix broken knees and so he created therapists to fix us on the inside.”
During our interview, she also focused on how social media and celebrities are helping to break the stigma. While social media can be a hindrance, Tetteh pointed out that when someone with a huge platform talks openly about mental health, it changes things.
“Any time someone of influence, cause what we’re talking about is power and influence,” she explained. “Any time they give a stamp of approval on something, we run with it. I call it third party validation. So when that person with a blue check mark says this is good, then it’s good.”
She pointed to rapper Kanye West as example and said, "Kanye is to thank for some of that, right? He constantly talks about his anxiety and his Lexapro so that makes it 'cool' and I'm OK with that – if that means more people are going to get that help."
Tetteh said rap mogul Jay-Z is helping as well by talking openly about going to therapy.
“Jay-Z, sitting in his interviews and he’s talking about he went to therapy, and now guys are like, 'I heard Hov say it, ‘I’m there. I need to be in the chair’,” she said. “I think, too for some people they need that encouragement. Or they need to see that if this person with all of this money and all of this status can have problems, ‘I, too can have problems. Let me go and see, see about this therapy thing’.”
But she was also quick to point out that therapy isn’t always easy.
“There will be some discomfort,” she said. “You may leave the first session upset. You’re not coming to therapy for the person to tell you all the great things about yourself. And to give you a yes for everything, right? There’s going to be some discomfort. There’s going to be some feelings that you’ve maybe never felt before and that’s OK, too. That just means that you’re growing. Growth happens when we’re uncomfortable. When we’re forced to feel and do things we’ve never done - that’s when we grow and we become a different person. Not when I’ve been doing the same thing that I’ve been doing for 5, 10, 12 years.”
For more information on the benefits of therapy or to reach Tetteh, click here.