Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

What Did She Say?

While most politics may come down to a high pile of rhetoric (blah, blah, blah) – there’s a reason a newborn baby’s brain develops differently depending on what words it hears. We think with words, which is why pre-verbal memory is so difficult to access; from the time we start talking we are taught to use our words to express ourselves.

What did five women at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) have to say that matters for mental health?

1. Thank you, Demi Lovato. This record breaking pop star held the microphone with millions watching around the world, and said, “Like millions of Americans, I am living with mental illness.” Lovato is living proof that mental illness (in her case, bipolar disorder) is highly democratic and she described herself as “living proof that you can live a normal and empowered life with mental illness.” Her words mattered.

2. Dropping Transgender Identify from List of Mental Disorders. Sarah McBride was the first transgender individual to take the stage at a major political convention. Her comments about gender identity and human rights coincide with a watershed World Health Organization study that just came out (and yes, that word choice is intentional) in Lancet Psychiatry this week.  The article advocates for declassifying transgender identity as a mental disorder in the upcoming edition of the International Classification of Diseases, which is used around the world to diagnose mental disorders. As our colleague and WHO Project Director Dr. Geoffrey Reed noted, the data do not support transgender as a mental disorder; its removal from the classification system is scientifically supported, and we hope it will reduce the discrimination and marginalization that transgender individuals currently face around the world.  These words matter.

3. Making Disabilities Visible. This past Tuesday was the 26th anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. 56 million people with disabilities, including those with mental illness, were represented as Anastasia Somoza, a 32-year-old woman with quadriplegia and cerebral palsy, wheeled herself to center stage to advocate for early intervention, access to care, and school and workplace inclusion. These are noble aspirations supported by science and guided by a commitment to preserve each individual’s dignity. In the case of mental illness, early intervention consistently yields better outcomes, but far too many people cannot get access to care. Inclusive policies and practices for school and work are limited, but when they are in place, they keep kids in school, enable workers to remain self-supporting and result in greater quality of life. Her words mattered.

4. They may not listen all the time; but they are watching. First Lady Michelle Obama was a wow beyond words. She drove home the universal truth that kids take their cues from the adults in their lives – particularly the adult leaders of the community and especially their parents. The developmental psychology research on modeling (also called observational learning) is wonderfully nuanced and offers a powerful lens on how children actually learn social values like right from wrong. Michelle Obama reminded us: the kids are watching. Her words mattered.

5. Women, Service, and Work. Chelsea Clinton, beaming, introduced herself as a proud mom and an even prouder daughter. She also happens to be an alumna of Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Vice President of the Clinton Foundation. Only 5 ½ weeks after giving birth to her second child, she showed everyone what she’s learned by watching and listening her whole life: that public service is a noble calling, that we need to keep fighting for what we believe in and that in the face of failure, we need to dust off and get back in the arena. Her words mattered.

Above the din of campaign rhetoric, these women have made it loud and clear that mental health is everyone’s issue. Join Lovato, McBride, Somoza, Obama and Clinton in speaking out. How we talk about mental health and what we do about it goes beyond the campaign trail to what our core values are as a society. 

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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