Ensuring employees’ mental health is vital not only to companies’ bottom lines but also to stanch the bleeding of chronic diseases that increase health care costs, LHI founder and CEO Don Weber told participants in a national initiative kicking off in Washington, D.C., today.

Weber and Dr. Todd Mahr of Onalaska shared the stage with first lady Michelle Obama and other dignitaries to kick off the Campaign to Change Direction at the Newseum in the nation’s capital.

The campaign is a coalition of government, business and nonprofit leaders who joined under the leadership of the national Give an Hour program to spur open discussions about mental health, mental illness and well-being.

The inspiration for Change Direction came from the White House National Conference on Mental Health in 2013 because of the murders of 20 young students and six adults in the Dec. 12, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Give an Hour founder and President Barbara Van Dahlen said in an interview.

“It’s an effort to change the story,” said Van Dahlen, who founded Give an Hour in September 2005 to enlist mental health workers across the nation to volunteer hours to provide free counseling to veterans and others.

Since Give an Hour’s inception, 7,000 mental health workers nationwide have volunteered 145,000 hours, providing $14.5 million worth of free care, she said.

Part of Van Dahlen’s motivation stems from the fact that her mother had a psychotic breakdown, and van Dahlen hasn’t been able to find her in 40 years. Her mother’s mental illness resulted in her parents’ divorce and bitter struggles over custody, she said.

Additional mental stressors include the death of her father when she was 27 and her brother’s death in a horrible accident.

“My mental balance was literally affected by my family, she said.

“What’s for me so poignant is she didn’t need to lose us, and I didn’t need to lose her,” she said. “If somebody had helped us, my family, maybe they still would have divorced, but it could have been different.”

Van Dahlen and other campaign organizers note that 1 in 5 people has a diagnosable mental illness and that more Americans are expected to die from suicide than in car accidents this year.

The Coulee Region mirrors that bleak national statistic, as La Crosse County alone is on track already this year to approach last year’s record-setting number of 26 suicides.

Contending that many people endure mental misery without seeking help, the Campaign to Change Direction wants all Americans to learn the five signs that indicate someone may be suffering in silence so they can urge the person to ask for assistance.

Briefly, those signs are:

  • People stop taking care of themselves and may engage in risky behavior.
  • They withdraw or isolate themselves from other people.
  • They seem uncharacteristically angry, anxious or agitated.
  • They seem overcome with hopelessness and overwhelmed by their circumstances.
  • Their personality changes.

When acquaintances notice such signs, they should talk to their friends, Van Dahlen said.

“We’ve got to start talking about things,” she said, adding that mental problems would shrink if people spent as much time taking care of their mental health as their dental health. “We’ve got to change the story in our country. We need a cultural change.”

In addressing mental health difficulties, Van Dahlen said, “One size doesn’t fit all. Not everybody needs to see a mental health counselor — it can be meditation, yoga or other services.”

Van Dahlen has been in La Crosse to work with Weber and other community leaders in advance of the local launch of the Campaign to Change Direction on March 23.

“Don Weber has been a progressive thinker in mental health ever since I’ve known him,” she said.

In advance of today’s national kickoff, Weber said, “Studies show that mental health issues lead to behaviors that put our health at risk, including smoking, abusing drugs and alcohol, being sedentary and obesity.”

LHI is “committed to screening for mental health issues and behavioral risk factors as a course of prevention. I believe it’s the most meaningful investment we can make in our employees,” he said.

“More than that, taking care of our workforce is the right thing to do. One in 5 of us suffers from mental illness, and chances are every single one of us is touched by mental health issues in some way, impacting our quality of life,” Weber said. “If 1 in 5 of us suffered from any other disease, we would call it an epidemic, so it’s high time we start tearing down the walls of shame and change the story about mental health and wellness in our nation.”

Mahr, an allergist for Gundersen Health System, told the kick-off audience  about mental health endeavors in La Crosse. Kaitlin Mahr, the daughter of Todd and Deb Mahr, committed suicide at the age of 20 on Nov. 19, 2007, after grappling with depression for years.

The Mahrs subsequently founded Kaitlin’s Table in their quest to get other young people to talk about their difficulties.

More than 40 Coulee Region companies, organizations and schools have signed on to participate in the Campaign to Change Direction, while also recognizing efforts already in progress at hospitals and organizations such as NAMI, the La Crosse Area Suicide Prevention Initiative, Mental Health Coalition of the Greater La Crosse Area and other groups.

“This is how we already provide help,” said Charish Badzinski, LHI’s communications manager, who has been involved in the local planning and is in D.C. for the national roll-out. “How can we be a part of the change in direction for mental health?”

“Our goal is not to reinvent the wheel,” said Teresa Pulvermacher, operations manager at Riverside Corporate Wellness, another Weber enterprise. “It’s to organize and see what’s next.”

For more on this story, see Thursday's La Crosse Tribune.

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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