As part of my work as a Colorado State Representative, I often post to social media about the progress of my work after presenting bills in committee. On Feb. 22, my office tweeted about my presentation to the Health and Insurance committee in support of a bill to improve access to treatment for people with Serious Mental Illness where I revealed that I myself have such an illness, Major Depressive Disorder.
Within a few hours, replies thanking me for my willingness to share about my own mental illness came in. Then came replies from those who vilified people with mental illness, with one person even comparing me to a psychopath. One person was so concerned that someone with a mental health diagnosis would be allowed to chair a legislative committee that she encouraged me to step down and tagged major local news outlets.
When I was diagnosed with uterine cancer right after my first year in elected office, I was open about my diagnosis. The response from the community was nothing short of overwhelming positivity, prayers and well-wishes. I was able to have a surgery to remove the cancer, and no one suggested I step down from my office.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly one in 25 adults in the U.S. lives with a serious mental illness – think conditions like bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia. Those people are your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers, your family members, and yes, your elected representatives. But because these are often invisible illnesses, many are unaware of their prevalence and don’t understand what it is really like to live with one of them.
There is a persistent misperception that people living with serious mental illness are unable to function normally in society, have productive lives, and in particular, hold leadership roles, whether that be in government, in business, or in their communities. This misperception is highly damaging not only to people who live with these conditions, but to our society as whole.
For one, this misunderstanding and the bias that results from it prevents people from talking openly about mental health issues and getting the care and treatment they need for their conditions. More than half of people with mental illness don’t receive help for their disorders, according to Mental Health America, and numerous studies have shown that people avoid or delay seeking treatment due to concerns about being treated differently or fears of losing their jobs and livelihood. In particular, 59.8% of youth with major depression do not receive any mental health treatment – a statistic that should be chilling to all of us given the rise in mental illness among Colorado youth.
In addition to creating barriers to care and treatment, bias and discrimination prevent those living with mental health conditions, particularly serious mental illnesses like mine, from stepping into the public sphere – whether that means running for office or seeking other leadership roles – for fear of being scrutinized, receiving backlash, and being told they’re unfit to represent their communities. Just last week, after Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman checked himself into a hospital for depression treatment, some political commentators immediately pounced to call him unfit for office and encourage him to resign.
The more people are driven into silence about mental health, the more it will be misunderstood, feared, and subjected to discrimination, perpetuating a harmful and too often deadly cycle. In order to truly confront the worsening mental health crisis in Colorado and across the U.S., we need to break this cycle and create an environment where people can talk openly and candidly about mental health without fear of discrimination and judgment.
Public figures like myself have a huge role to play when it comes to normalizing mental illness and showing the world that people with mental health conditions can be drivers of positive change in their communities. In speaking openly and publicly about my own mental health diagnosis, I hope to inspire people like myself, particularly young people, to believe in themselves, seek the care or treatment they need, and be open about their own mental health without fear. I also believe that having a serious mental illness makes me uniquely qualified to serve as chair of the Colorado House Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services committee and find policy solutions to make mental health treatment more accessible for people like me.
Everyone should be encouraged and empowered to achieve their goals and dreams in life regardless of whether they have a mental health condition. The health of our communities depends on it.
Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, of Commerce City, represents District 32 in the Colorado House of Representatives.