Politicians and Pundits: PROJECT 375 President Jennifer Pool on Changing Our Approach to Mental Illness

In this Saturday, Nov, 21, 2015, photo, Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, left, and New York Jets receiver Brandon Ma
In this Saturday, Nov, 21, 2015, photo, Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, left, and New York Jets receiver Brandon Marshall talk about overcoming mental health issues in Houston. Foster has joined Marshall’s PROJECT 375, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and disorders. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

BM: Why did you take this job?

JP: Good question! I'm amazed at how often I'm asked that. It's always followed with, "You must love football!" or "You're a Jets fan, huh?" or "Needed a break from the corporate grind?" Quite frankly, I've never worked harder than I am right now, and I'm no slacker. Further, I know zilch about football.

I have long been motivated by the array of challenges the mental health community faces. It's extraordinarily complex. The severity of the spectrum of illnesses and disorders compounded by the secrecy and fear of discovery creates a formidable challenge for anyone working in this space, whether it's on legislation, research or therapeutic application. I didn't know what I didn't know until I started to dig in to the sector during the recruitment process. I learn something new every hour of every day. I love my job.

BM: What strikes you as the biggest hurdle to connecting people to treatment?

JP: It's the stigma. It's really that straightforward. I am a big believer in the philosophical application of Occam's razor - the simplest explanation is more often correct. I see and hear it at cocktail parties, in the workplace, at my son's school, you can feel it when someone is dancing around it. The stigma makes it virtually impossible to seek help, openly accept a diagnosis and start a journey toward a healthier state of being.

How do you tell your boss "I have an anxiety disorder" and anticipate that you will still be considered an asset to the company? Brandon, that's what makes you so extraordinary. You play, arguably, the most physically grueling professional sport there is - there is no room for "soft." Yet you stood in front of that mic and told the world you have a weakness. You still have a job - actually, you have several jobs. Amazing.

I think the real hurdle we need to overcome to eradicate the stigma requires a societal sea change that starts with reporters, media pundits and politicians. One major problem is that we conflate tragic violence with mental illness, especially in this country. We rightfully feel that unprovoked violence demonstrates a lack of a moral compass, a disregard for life. It flies in the face of our national philosophy, that no one should interfere with anyone else's pursuit of happiness.

Lacking a moral compass, even having a complete disregard for human life, however, is NOT by itself a mental illness. It's awful, but it isn't a disease. When media and politicians rush to call every homicide the result of mental illness, it's a falsehood that feeds the stigma and keeps people from coming forward to get diagnosed and live with it openly.

I am determined, through our work at PROJECT 375, to change this language. When the time comes that we are able to push aside the fear and ignite a fact-based and empathetic conversation in this country regarding mental illness and disorders, it will be a game-changer.

BM: How do we do that?

JP: We get Joe Scarborough, Brian Williams, Brian Kilmeade, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Roberts, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton - need I go on? - to stop jumping to the conclusion that a mental illness is to blame for acts of violence before they have the facts. I recently read an abstract from Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms by Doctors Metzl and MacLeish. It should be mandatory reading for reporters and pundits weighing in on mental health. It says, with emphasis added,

"To be sure, a number of the most common psychiatric diagnoses, including depressive, anxiety, and attention-deficit disorders, have no correlation with violence whatsoever. Community studies find that serious mental illness without substance abuse is also "statistically unrelated" to community violence. At the aggregate level, the vast majority of people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts--only about 4% of violence in the United States can be attributed to people diagnosed with mental illness."

There are more than 80 million Americans living with and or caring for someone with a mental illness or disorder. We are calling upon all of them to join the conversation at PROJECT 375 through our REAL CHATS and on MyCounterpane. We will be the change we want to see in the world.

Read more of our REAL CHATS here. You can follow us @project375, Brandon Marshall @bmarshall and share your story on mycounterpane.com.