Stop the Stigma: Mental Health and Human Rights
WNBA Hall of Famer Chamique Holdsclaw told an audience of students at the Kean Human Rights Conference last week to seek help if they are struggling with mental illness.
“You deserve to live a colorful and beautiful life. You deserve to be the best you. Take that step,” said the former WNBA All-Star who has been diagnosed with bipolar depression and advocates for open dialogue about mental health and better access to support services.
The conference, Stop the Stigma: Mental Health and Human Rights, focused on the sense of shame and isolation that often stops people from seeking medical help for mental health conditions. Holdsclaw was the conference keynote speaker.
“Trust and believe that it can get better,” she told the audience of mostly middle school, high school and Kean University students at the conference. “I had a mental health breakdown at 33, and it was just darkness, but I realized that I couldn’t do it alone.”
Holdsclaw said through treatment and asking for support from family and friends, she now has a better skill set to cope with life’s struggles and continues to work on her mental wellness every day.
Kean President Lamont O. Repollet, Ed.D., opened the conference, noting that one in five people struggle with mental health, but nearly two-thirds of them will not seek treatment.
“Mental health is a major public health crisis in this country that requires immediate attention,” Repollet said. “It’s time we take a justice-centered approach to stop the stigma. Providing equitable access to mental health facilities and other treatment options, along with funding and appropriate criminal justice and mental health policies to back it up — well, that would be a game changer.”
Also speaking at the conference were Kean alumnus Francesco Rizzo-Duffy ’13, a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor, and Cynthia Yue, U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations.
Rizzo-Duffy encouraged the audience to “be kind, always” in deference to the hidden, internal struggles that others may be facing, particularly during the isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID-19 has become an accelerant to the depth and breadth of the crisis that we face over the next decade,” he said. “We are seeing a 27% increase in depressive disorders and a 25% increase in anxiety disorders, and that’s just with the people seeking treatment.”
With many more people not seeking help, Rizzo-Duffy predicted “a second pandemic” and global mental health crisis that will reverberate for at least a generation.
Yue reminded the young people in the audience of their immense power to influence change.
“We have new platforms, new tools that previous generations didn’t have, and there is power in numbers,” she said. “For many of us, it is not about influencing millions of people. Sometimes by changing one single life or working on one specific issue, we can create the domino effect that impacts others and influences the entire world.”
The Human Rights conference was held after a week of activities on Kean’s Union campus, including talks by representatives of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness; hosting a Wall of Worries and Gallery of Gratitude for members of the Kean community to anonymously share their burdens and joys; and a screening of the animated film Encanto followed by a discussion of the characters’ struggles.
“At Kean’s Human Rights Institute, we share our therapy stories; we support one another through our lows and celebrate our successes,” said HRI Director Lauretta Farrell, D.Litt. “In short, we normalize talking about our own mental health struggles and the importance of asking for help.”
Students in the audience responded to the open dialogue created at the conference, and asked questions about supporting their own mental health and the wellness of family and friends.
Montclair High School English teacher Dashon Holder attended the event with a group of students from the school's Center for Social Justice Learning Community. He said it was especially valuable that the conference offered students a diverse perspective on mental health issues.
"I think it was great that our students of color got to see people who looked like them open up about mental health," he said. "It made our students open up as well."
After the conference, Holdsclaw met with the Kean women’s basketball team backstage. Junior Morgan Dietz, a shooting guard and small forward from Allentown, Pennsylvania studying psychology and sociology at Kean, was grateful.
“It’s very comforting to know that she was confident enough to explain her journey so that we have someone to look up to,” Dietz said. “The day-to-day hustle of being a student-athlete is exhausting and difficult, so seeing someone who has navigated that is helpful.”
Carteret High School history teacher Jerry Derillo said Holdsclaw was especially well-received by the students.
"She was really inspirational," he said.
The speakers each received a Human Rights Institute Award. Holdsclaw was named Outstanding Human Rights Activist; Rizzo-Duffy was honored as Outstanding Community Human Rights Activist; and Yue was named Outstanding Young Human Rights Activist.
Also receiving awards were Bayonne High School history teacher Gene Woods, who received the Hank Kaplowitz Outstanding Human Rights Educator award, and Kean senior Chevon Williams, a former student of Woods in Bayonne, who received the Outstanding Human Rights Student Activist award.