The stigma surrounding mental health

Jake Porter
Jake Porter

On Dec. 5, I was 1 of 12 candidates for governor of Iowa present at the Des Moines Register-sponsored gubernatorial forum on mental health. We were asked what the most pressing problem in Iowa’s mental health system was and what we would do as governor to fix it. My answer, based on personal experience, was simple. We must first address the stigma surrounding mental illness. To lead, I would have to reveal my own experience.

In 2011, I contemplated suicide. I was going to do it. I was going to end my own life.

One afternoon, I went for a long drive. The question was not if, but how I was going to do it. Near the end of my drive, I had a profound spiritual experience. Many people have had these thoughts, but sadly, not come back from them. They left their friends and family behind. In Iowa, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people my age (15-34). Suicide and mental illness are issues that impact us all, at some level.

Before last week, I had only told a handful of people about my experience. In fact, for years it frightened me to think, let alone talk, about how I came that close to ending it all. What would other people think? Would they reject me for jobs if they knew? What family and friends think? Would people dissociate from me? I didn’t plan to make such an admission last week. When the question was asked, about the most important factor surrounding mental health, there was only one answer I felt was right. We must address the stigma surrounding mental illness. If I can’t talk about something personal like that, there is certainly a stigma surrounding it. If this is true for me, I am sure it must be true for others.

Dr. Andy McGuire, a fellow candidate for Iowa governor, made a great point. If someone would have walked into the room with a broken arm or leg we would all go over and help them. If they were addicted to drugs, would we do the same? What if they were suffering from a mental illness?

I am certainly not the first Iowa politician to contemplate suicide and later talk about it. Former Gov. Harold Hughes contemplated suicide during a long battle with alcohol addiction following World War II and before he became governor of Iowa and a U.S. senator. He also wrote a book titled “The Man From Ida Grove” which discusses it in great detail.

If you are depressed, suicidal, or addicted to alcohol or illegal or legal drugs, it is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed by. I know people who have recovered from methamphetamine addiction, alcohol addiction, and suicide attempts. It is perfectly acceptable to admit that you have a problem or are struggling and ask for help. The stigma can only stay around as long as we ignore the problems. I just wish I had known this almost 8 years ago.

l Jake Porter is a business consultant in Council Bluffs and is a Libertarian Party candidate for governor in 2018.

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