MISSOULA — What makes people associate mental health stigmas with themselves?
Shame and other related emotions, Ashley Montondon told a packed conference room Thursday at the Holiday Inn Downtown.
Montondon, a therapist at Lone Star Behavioral Health in Houston, spoke to some of the more than 300 people who attended this year’s National Alliance on Mental Illness Montana Conference on Mental Illness.
The annual conference is geared toward the 1 in 4 families affected by serious mental illness and brings together policymakers, mental health professionals and others affected by mental illness, said Matt Kuntz, executive director of the NAMI Montana advocacy group.
“It’s a tool to bring some of the best minds on mental illnesses into the state,” Kuntz said, adding that presenters at the top of their fields came from Texas, Virginia and other places to share their knowledge with conference attendees.
The Montana chapter of the national organization provides support services, as well as a voice advocating for policy changes. An online guide lists available resources by county and people can tap into support services by phone or computer, Kuntz said.
While there are signs of success in tackling mental illness issues, much work remains, he said.
The appointment of Gary Mihelish, a dentist from Helena and longtime NAMI leader, to the group’s national board will help bring a rural viewpoint specific to Montana, Kuntz said. “It’s a really big deal because we have different challenges than New York or California or Texas.”
Ultimately, the key to erasing stigmas and moving forward with quality of care is education, Kuntz said, adding the conference is a way to learn about cutting-edge techniques. “Without the education, we’re just stuck with misconceptions about mental illnesses and what they are and how to treat them.”
Just as NAMI’s efforts are ongoing, so is the path to recovery for people dealing with mental illnesses.
Part of the recovery process is overcoming the shame many people dealing with mental illnesses feel, said Montondon.
People like to say there is no shame in mental illness, he said.
While that’s true in the sense that people shouldn’t feel shame, “I think there is shame and guilt and dark emotions in mental illness,” he said.
Those emotions manifest as stigmas people then believe and attach to themselves. Often people also feel inadequate, weak, uncertain, flawed, exposed, hurt, intimidated and different, to name a few, he said.
Instead of talking about how they’re feeling and what they’re going through, people put on masks to conceal vulnerabilities, he said. “This applies to all of us as human beings.”
However, talking about what’s triggering feelings of shame can be beneficial and help people see themselves as a person with challenges instead of a mentally ill person, he added.
People can build emotional strength and skills to help overcome challenges by evaluating beliefs and validating themselves as well as by challenging assumptions that are made when people put themselves down, Montondon said.
“More than anything, it’s showing up and letting ourselves be seen,” he said.
Can the people who attended his lecture do that, he asked.
“Hey, we’re here aren’t we?” an audience member called out to uproarious applause.
For more information on NAMI or to view the county resource guide, visit namimt.org.