By Mindy Rubenstein
“Real transformation requires real honesty,” says author and activist Bryant McGill. These words were part of Collen Rodriguez’s opening remarks during Jewish Family & Community Services’ annual fundraising event last month. I was fortunate to have attended this powerful program, which drew nearly 300 people from throughout Jacksonville and Northeast Florida.
Rodriguez, CEO of JFCS, said, “Tonight we are taking a little bit of a risk…we are daring to talk about a topic that isn’t usually what’s discussed at the cocktail parties we all regularly attend. Some of us might get a little uncomfortable.”
Mental health and emotional wellbeing, including issues such as anxiety, depression and addiction, receive limited government funding and are not often discussed openly and honestly. “If we are real as a community, a state, a country, we have to admit that emotional wellbeing has not been a priority,” she said. “Florida allocates the least amount of its annual budget to mental health programs in the country, and Duval County is second to last in mental health funding in the state.” Plus some laws are being changed to even further reduce what’s currently available, including access to preventative care – yet more people lose their lives each year because of mental illness than because of cancer, Rodriguez said.
JFCS, which has been serving the First Coast for over a century and is funded in part by the Jewish Federation of Jacksonville, won’t turn anyone away, despite cuts in government funding. So the need for public awareness, advocacy and support is increasing. Talking about mental illness makes many of us squirm in discomfort or try to brush it aside as something that only affects others. But silence doesn’t lead to change. And we need change. We need more honesty. Like the honesty of Sheryl Johnson.
Event co-chair and a JFCS board member, Johnson spoke boldly and beautifully at the event about her personal story, including losing her 22-year-old son Alex to mental illness. Time seemed to stand still as she spoke, with emotion gracefully pouring forth about a story that remained untold until recently. It was a moving evening that left most of the room in tears as I looked around at the faces of my fellow attendees. Her husband, Todd, greeted her at the end, and then a standing ovation helped conclude her powerful and importantly honest story.
Of her decision to speak openly about Alex, Johnson told me it was an extremely difficult decision, one that waited until a year after his death. After seeing cuts in government funding and the struggles of organizations trying to help people with mental illness, “I said, gosh, people should talk about it,” Johnson said. “So practice what you preach... I took a big leap of faith.”
She could have hidden behind her pain, but instead she has used it as a springboard to raise awareness of mental illness in an effort to help others and to keep Alex’s memory alive. “We need to give meaning to his life, and life to his memory,” she said. “That’s how we keep him alive and create a legacy.”
Most families have faced mental illness at some point, and it impacts everyone’s life in some way directly or indirectly -- including my own. We need to shift how we think about mental health, giving it attention and funding like other illnesses, Rodriguez said. “What I’m talking about is a shift in how we view mental health. That it is JUST as important as physical health. That it deserves the attention, acceptance and funding that we give every other medical diagnosis.”
We must view mental health with honesty and make it a priority, removing the stigma and judgement surrounding it. We must volunteer, donate and advocate for better laws and support. And please get help if you think you may need it. “Talk about it, don’t hide it,” Johnson said.
“Remember to look at people with your heart and not your eyes. We won’t get the momentum to make change unless we change how we look at people suffering from mental illness,” she added. “Start with one voice and add two. It’s that collective voice that helps drive the change.”
Do you or someone you know struggle with mental illness, anxiety, depression or addiction? Call JFCS counseling services at (904) 394-5706. To share your thoughts, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.