On the Power of Personal Testimony

Expressing thanks for individuals’ willingness to share their stories, especially in light of the pending legislation it has inspired

First and foremost this week, I want to thank reader Casey Quinlan for bravely answering the question I posed in last week’s post, “How are you doing, really?” Thank you, Casey – and happy belated birthday! – for not only answering that question honestly, but sharing publicly the very personal, medical reason behind that “mostly OK” answer.

I’m sure I’ve said this here before, but anytime anyone speaks up about their struggle, even if it isn’t solely about their struggle with mental health, it gives others the OK to follow suit. It pulls back the curtain of sunshine and rainbows and lets people know “Hey, it’s OK for everything to not be OK all of the time. Just look at what I’m going through behind the scenes.”

That message alone can be really validating and reassuring to people who currently seem to be on a path with more than its fair share of bumps in the road. And for people who have really faced serious hardships that have taken a large toll on their thoughts and feelings, stories like that shared by Malkia Newman, Team Supervisor of the CNS Healthcare Anti-Stigma Program in Waterford, Michigan, are even more powerful and impactful.

In her testimony before the Senate Committee on Finance earlier this year – which you can watch here starting around the 1:05:30 mark – Newman said:

“My name is Malkia Newman, and I am living proof that the services and supports that are available through our community mental health system work. I am not naïve to the fact that there are many areas that need to be improved. But I know that my life would not be the amazing life that I’m living now had I not received treatment for Bipolar Disorder almost 20 years ago.

I am a survivor of childhood sexual trauma, as well as a survivor of inter-generation trauma, a sad legacy of slavery and discrimination. I wrestled with suicidal thoughts, had difficulties maintaining relationships or employment. My daughter Tracie, who I call my miracle, was my reason for living when all hope was gone.

Mental health conditions are very prevalent in my family, the treatments, and hospitalizations that my brother Ronnie endured, who had schizophrenia, terrified me which made it harder for me to ask for help until there was no other option available.

Fast forward 20 years. I have 15 years of continuous employment with CNS Healthcare’s Anti-Stigma Program, I’ve been a homeowner for 9 years, and on June 5th my husband Dubrae and I will celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. I have reconciled with my family and I serve as an ordained minister at my church, New Birth International of Pontiac, MI. My list of community service awards and recognitions is long … I am living proof, I am an advocate, and I am proud to speak on behalf of those who have not yet found their voice.”

You can read Newman’s full testimony here, but in so doing, you might wonder why I’m highlighting Newman’s May testimony now. The answer is pretty exciting.

I was reminded of Newman’s testimony because of a letter to the Senate Committee on Finance issued by Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Finance Ranking Member Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, late last week. In that letter, Sen. Wyden and Sen. Crapo mentioned that following two committee hearings on mental health – the one Newman appeared in, “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond: Improving Mental Health and Addiction Services in Our Communities,” and the one I testified in, “Mental Health Care in America: Addressing Root Causes and Identifying Policy Solutions” – they challenge all committee members to draft and submit bipartisan efforts to address barriers to mental health care by August 31. After considering those efforts, Sen. Wyden and Sen. Crapo plan to present this year a bipartisan legislative package tackling mental health and addiction.

My thanks go out to Sen. Wyden and Sen. Crapo for their leadership in helping to pave the way for us to make meaningful changes for mental health and addiction in this country. Mental health has been the epidemic within this pandemic and will – especially if left unaddressed – remain a top public health issue for years to come.

If you have read anything I have written here on Substack you know that how our country has approached mental health is part of the issue. We need to reorient our societies (health system, schools, etc.) around solving for problems for every American from birth to death. And if we reapply state and federal resources to support this new approach, we will see a new dawn in our thinking about mental health and our attempts to get ahead of mental illness.

Specific to Sen. Wyden and Sen. Crapo's legislation, however, per an earlier post, you already know the three key thing I’m hoping will make their way into that draft. These are taken from the testimony I made before the Senate Finance Committee:

  1. Integrate mental health by bringing much needed services to where people already are, be that in a school, primary care, a workplace or even a barbershop;

  2. Map out mental health utilization and gaps – to better determine where services are needed and for whom – and invest in our community workforce that helps fill the gaps;

  3. And better coordinate state and federal efforts via a landscape analysis so that we know what we already have established, what those goals are, what those results are, and how we can maximize the full potential of each.

Of course there are deep financing and policy considerations here – as well as other propitious opportunities like 988, the suicide prevention hotline that goes live in 2022.

Bipartisan support for mental health could not come at a better time for our parents, our siblings, our friends, and especially our kids. Our kids, including my own, are about to enter into one of the weirdest school experiences they’ve had yet, and that transition is going to come with its own pros and cons.

How to navigate this year’s unique (and controversial) back-to-school experience with your child is what I’ll focus on in next week’s post. Stay tuned, and if you’re getting your kids ready to return like I am, good luck!