‘This Is Us’ actress calls for humanizing mental illness

A day after the season finale of NBC’s ‘This Is Us’, actress Susan Kelechi Watson – a.k.a wise, graceful and brilliantly funny Beth Pearson – told an audience in Orlando on Wednesday that the show has helped break down barriers in its portrayal of mental health issues, especially for black men.

In addition to tackling addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, the show covered the recurring struggles of Beth’s husband, Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown), a strong and complex character who suffered sometimes debilitating anxiety.

“There’s something about really naming [mental illness] and recognize that in many communities, in my own community, there is stigma,” she said. “What our show did was kind of lift the veil on that stigma, specifically by portraying a black man who was looking for help in that area…and allowing him to be vulnerable. It was so important for a lot of people to see. “

Watson, speaking to the Central Florida Mental Health AssociationThe annual Legacy of Champions luncheon, called for acceptance and empowerment of people with mental illness – something she witnessed as a child. Her mother was the head of the outpatient psychiatric unit at Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, where she developed a program that paired patients with hospital caregivers to facilitate their reintegration into the community.

“I grew up around the stories of these truly wonderful, unique people who had varying degrees of difficulty coping with everyday life,” Watson said. “I would hear about everything from extreme paranoia to schizophrenia to depression and bipolar disorder. [My mother] talked about his favorites. … A lot of these patients, they only wanted to deal with my mom, because they just felt… like she really listened to them.

Yet even in his own extended family, people quickly dismissed the signs of mental illness — in themselves and others — to avoid recognizing and treating it, Watson said. A diagnosis of mental illness is still too often misunderstood as an “indictment,” she says, of personal failure.

“But we tend not to deal [the wounds] that we don’t see,” Watson said. “And we don’t see the mind as cells and tissues and synapses, as a part of this body that we have that needs as much care as a broken bone or injured flesh.”

Watson’s message comes as a record number of Central Floridians are asking for help.

In the past year alone, the nonprofit Mental Health Association of Central Florida connected nearly 2,200 clients with mental health services, represented nearly 500 unguarded patients, reached more than 1,200 people through peer support groups and treated nearly 1,000 patients at its Outlook Clinicwhich offers free psychiatric services to uninsured people.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said President and CEO Marni Stahlman. “Now more than ever, … it is unacceptable that neighbours, friends, colleagues and loved ones have no one to turn to when they need resources to heal.”

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