‘This Is Us’ actress calls for humanizing mental illness

One day after the season finale of NBC’s “This Is Us,” actress Susan Kelechi Watson – aka wise, gracious, brilliantly droll Beth Pearson – told an audience in Orlando Wednesday that the show helped break through barriers in its portrayal of mental health issuesespecially 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 is something about really naming [mental illness] and recognizing that in many communities, in my own community, there is stigma, ”she said. “What our show did was kind of lift the veil of that stigma, especially by portraying a Black man who was seeking help in that area… and allowing him to be vulnerable. It was so very important for a lot of people to see. “

Watson, speaking at the Mental Health Association of Central Florida‘s 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 pairing patients with hospital caretakers to ease their assimilation back into the community.

“I grew up around stories of these really wonderful, unique individuals who had difficulties dealing with everyday life to varying degrees,” Watson said. “I would hear about anything from extreme paranoia, schizophrenia, to depression to bipolar disorder. [My mother] talked about her favorites. … A lot of these patients, they only wanted to deal with my mother, because they just felt like… she really did listen to them. ”

Yet even in her own extended family, people were quick to brush off signs of mental illness – in themselves and others – to avoid acknowledging and treating it, Watson said. A mental illness diagnosis is still too often wrongfully perceived as an “indictment,” she said, of some personal failing.

“But we tend not to treat [the wounds] that we do not see, ”Watson said. “And we do not see the mind as cells and tissue and synapses, as part of this body we have that needs just as much care as a broken bone or wounded flesh.”

Watson’s message comes as a record number of Central Floridians seek help.

In the past year alone, the nonprofit Mental Health Association of Central Florida has connected nearly 2,200 clients with mental health services, represented nearly 500 patients without a guardian advocate, 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 the uninsured.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said President and CEO Marni Stahlman. “Now more than ever, it’s unacceptable for neighbors, friends, co-workers and relatives to have nowhere to turn when they need resources to heal.”

ksantich@orlandosentinel.com

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