Emotional suffering has been hiding in plain sight for generations. The statistics prove it. One in five adults in our country — approximately 43 million people — suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition during their lifetimes; some conditions are temporary, but some are chronic and lifelong. One-half of all mental illness has its onset by age 14 and two-thirds arises by 23. Those affected are often the last to know and the rest of us don’t know what to look for. And when we suspect it or when it is diagnosed, we have been conditioned to keep it a secret.

Last year alone, more people died by suicide in America than on its highways. Almost every 90 minutes, a brave veteran takes his or her own life. Mental health conditions are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada, and businesses lose billions of dollars a year to unaddressed mental health conditions through absenteeism and diminished productivity. As Yogi Berra might have said, “If nothing changes, nothing changes.”

Enter noted child psychologist Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., the founder and president of Give an Hour, a national volunteer effort to counsel veterans and their family members with mental health issues. She created the Campaign to Change Direction, a public health effort to change the culture about mental health, mental illness and emotional well-being. Its goal is to educate everyone about the five most common signs of emotional suffering so that they become as widely known as the signs of a heart attack or a stroke. “If we all come to value our emotional well-being the way we value our physical well-being — and if we all learn the Five Signs of emotional suffering — those in need will get the help they deserve,” Van Dahlen recently said.

In May, New Hampshire expressed an interest in becoming the first state to join the national Change Direction campaign. Van Dahlen was delighted to accept its offer. Three dedicated co-chairs led the New Hampshire effort. “Two of our co-chairs are noted experts in behavioral health. The third is a former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court whose family’s journey with undiagnosed mental illness was very public a decade ago,” she says. “I am very proud of what is happening in New Hampshire, where so many organizations have stepped forward to sponsor and help, including hospital systems, consumer groups, mental health partners, businesses, the legal and faith-based communities, media partners, government leaders and educational institutions. This truly is a collective effort that is changing the culture of mental health in New Hampshire.””

Hospitals in New Hampshire, both individually and collectively through the New Hampshire Hospital Association, have been a catalyst for much of the campaign’s progress. Hospitals are strong supporters of this effort and I am particularly proud that the New Hampshire Hospital Association has taken a leadership role. By changing the culture of mental health in New Hampshire and treating mental health issues like any other medical problem, we can bring mental suffering out of the shadows and help people to live more productive, open and healthy lives.

Knowing the Five Signs is simple and can help to create a common language to allow us to recognize the signs of emotional suffering in ourselves and others. The Five Signs of the Campaign to Change Direction are something all of us need to know, and they include:

  1. Change in personality
  2. Agitation
  3. Withdrawal
  4. Decline in personal care
  5. Hopelessness

Someone may exhibit one or more signs. 

For more information, visit www.changedirection.org and if you are interested in what we are doing in New Hampshire, click on the Change Direction New Hampshire link located on the home page.

“I am impressed with the good work that is being done in New Hampshire. We are seeing tremendous progress across the state and the implementation of many great ideas that will prove useful as the campaign continues to grow,” says Van Dahlen.

Steve Ahnen is president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association. John Broderick is co-chair of Campaign to Change Direction New Hampshire and former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.