Like Judd, the Center for Health Care Services is fighting the stigma of mental illness

For years, Naomi Judd suffered in silence.

The country music singing legend was overwhelmed with feelings of depression and anxiety. She also was overwhelmed by the stigma of mental illness, which left her afraid to talk about her suffering.

“When I did interviews, I couldn’t really tell the truth because I didn’t want to bring people down,” Judd said in 2015. “It didn’t fit the image they had of Mama Judd. I just kept shoving it down and repressing it.”

Last week, Judd succumbed to mental illness at the age of 76. But there’s an uplifting aspect to her story that is worth remembering.

Ten years ago, Judd confronted her mental health challenges, overcame the stigma and, with the support of her family, got professional help.

The mental health services Judd received not only extended her life, but improved the quality of it. She took pride in being a spokesperson for mental health, someone who could encourage others to get past their fears and reach out for help.

“I get all emotional when I think we have 16 million people in this country suffering from depression right now,” Judd said in 2015. “I just can’t stand it.”

In the mental health industry, there’s a challenge to provide all the services needed by patients. Then there’s the equally daunting challenge of connecting people with those services — making them aware of where to go and who to contact. And convincing them that it’s a good idea to access that help.

That’s what Judd wanted for others, and it should serve as the lesson of her story.

“This disease can really destroy a family and can leave the individual and the family feeling very desperate and not knowing where to go,” said Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison, CEO for the Center for Health Care Services (CHCS), the mental health authority for Bexar County, which serves 40,000 patients a year.

“Just navigating our medical system can be very daunting. Add the complexity and the stigma associated with mental health disorder, in that you don’t feel comfortable talking about it, people don’t have a very robust vocabulary. They don’t know how to talk about it and they don’t know where to go.”

For those in need of immediate help, CHCS has the following 24-hour crisis line: 210-223-SAFE.

The problem has only intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The huge growth for us for new consumers has been adolescents and youth,” Jamison said. “The isolation at home, not having access to their regular school schedule, not having access to their friends, in some cases the loss of parents or family members, has really impacted our young population more, proportionately, than our adult population.”

One positive development is that the city of San Antonio has committed to allocating $26 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to mental health services.

In April, the city also launched a one-year pilot program that combines police officers, paramedics and CHCS clinicians in a crisis-response team to handle calls that involve mental health issues.

“They’ve been functioning as a team since April,” Jamison said. “It’s been a soft rollout, because we wanted to spend time training those individuals together, so they understood each of their roles, but also had a better sense of the roles of their team members.

“That’s been very successful. The majority of our calls thus far have been resolved at the scene.”

Jacob Benavides is a long-time CHCS patient who now assists other patients.

Benavides, 39, is a 2001 graduate of John Marshall High School. After attending the University of Texas at Austin, he worked in Austin as a sales representative for a community newspaper.

In 2009, he started to become gripped by anxiety and depression, hearing voices in his head, seeing things that weren’t there and finding it nearly impossible to leave his house. He went from 175 to 295 pounds.

At the suggestion of his mother, Benavides visited a CHCS clinic and things began to turn around for him.

“I got to a place where I was finally able to regain control of my life,” Benavides said.

“I give the Center for Health Care Services credit for getting me to where I am now in my recovery, doing these things, being able to assist others in their recovery process.”

Jamison recognizes that community engagement is half the battle.

Along those lines, CHCS has partnered with Raising Cane’s to fight the stigma of mental illness. All May 23 food purchases from local Cane’s locations will benefit the cause of mental health.

“I no longer want to be the best-kept secret in San Antonio,” Jamison said.

Naomi Judd would have applauded that sentiment.

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By Percy