Mental Health Awareness Month: Q&A with Expert Dr. Desireè Kelly

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Trigger Warning: Mental health and illness are discussed in this interview. While not the majority topic of the blog, if you feel suicidal please call the Tennessee Statewide Crisis Line hotline number 855-CRISIS-1 or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK. If you are down, depressed or anxious about the Coronavirus or anything, you can also text the National Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Support, knowledge, and coping skills for those that suffer from mental health issues have significantly increased with free and paid for resources made available online and in-person across the USA. However, there’s still much to be done in regards to helping those suffering. 

The stats are heartbreaking. One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. In Tennessee, three people die a day by suicide. Suicide is the 9th leading cause of death in Tennessee according to the Mental Health America of the MidSouth. Mental Health is not always an easy topic to discuss — whether you’re suffering from something yourself, or you may have a child or family member struggling. That is why May is Mental Health Awareness Month. 

In efforts to better understand the reality of Mental Health and Resources in Middle Tennessee we spoke to Dr. Desireè Kelly. She is the Public Health and Education Manager at Mental Health America of the MidSouth where she oversees the Youth Erasing the Stigma Program and the Mind the Workplace Wellness Program. She has over 25 years of experience as an educator, curriculum developer, and trainer. She specializes in designing and implementing curriculum for various generational cohorts in diverse topics, specifically mental health education and self-care resources. Here’s what she had to say in light of raising awareness, programs available to schools in Middle Tennessee, and for advocating for those living with mental health illness.

Please note the below is an abbreviated transcript of the interview. Head over to their website or connect with them to learn more if you have an interest in bringing a program to your school or workplace. The interview below speaks specifically to programs / circumstances in Middle Tennessee and not meant to replace speaking with a doctor or therapist. 

Dallas Jessup: Mental Health Awareness is such a necessary but tough topic to discuss. What is the goal of Mental Health America / Mental Health Awareness Month?

Dr. Desireè Kelly: At Mental Health America, our goal is to end mental health stigma as well as negative attitudes and misconceptions around mental and behavioral health. In my role, I get the opportunity to advocate and educate. As a matter of fact, my mantra has always been to reach, then teach. The month of May provides the opportunity for everyone to advocate and raise awareness surrounding mental health diagnosis on a wider spectrum.

Jessup: What is the current state of mental health efforts, and what does it look like in Tennessee and Nashville and the greater area?

Dr. Kelly: Tennessee has a population of approximately 6.5 million people. And according to SAMHSA, close to 4.3% of adults in Tennessee live with serious mental health conditions.  Some of those conditions are bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia. Only 43.2% of adults with mental illnesses in Tennessee receive any form of treatment. That is either the public system or private providers. So, the remaining 56.8% do not receive mental health treatment (this is pre-Coronavirus).  

With the mandated quarantine, albeit lifting soon, people had to shelter in place. MHA changed our method of delivery; currently, we are hosting webinars, zoom meetings and continuing to provide therapeutic recommendations to help people during this time of uncertainty. 

Children in Tennessee are dealing with bullying and suicide in our schools on a regular basis. One of my roles is to oversee the Erasing the Stigma Youth Program (ETSY) which is a program to educate children about their mental health and allow them to become their own mental health advocates. We accomplish that with “I.C. Hope®️ Duck” which is the program’s mascot. I.C. Hope®️  is a non-threatening way to discuss mental health illness with children and he is so cute and loveable. I.C. Hope®️  is unique; he has a bandage and a life preserver. The bandage serves as a reminder that mental illness is real and treatable. The life preserver serves as a reminder that every life is valuable and worth saving, and it is okay to ask for help.

The ETSY program is provided complimentary to middle and west Tennessee; however, we do provide services to other counties in the state. Our top scheduled programs for kindergarteners are usually anger management, bullying, and how to handle a bad day. As kids venture into middle school, our presentations transition to bullying, suicide, and worrying; in high school, the presentations focus on suicide, bullying, and mental health and stigma.  Dallas, notice that the same three concerns are being requested in all three groups of school-age children — anger management, suicide, and bullying. That is a wakeup call for educators, administrators, and policy makers, this shows us where the gaps are in mitigating risk. Those three topics are ones that if not dealt with can [possibly] manifest in tragic ways later in life.   

Jessup: Before we deep dive into this conversation, can you explain the difference between mental health and mental illness? 

Dr. Kelly: Certainly, mental health is your general well-being; mental illness is a diagnosed illness. Knowing the difference between the two is key. We must educate ourselves about mental illness and its relation to mental health. A lot of people struggling with substance abuse are also dealing with mental health issues. They have a dual diagnosis. And if we do not know the difference or the information surrounding dual diagnosis, stigma exists (misunderstandings and biases alike). If we spent more time understanding the differences, perhaps we would be more compassionate towards those who seek therapy and need treatment.

First, educate yourselves and choose your words very, very carefully. Pass on facts, positive attitudes, and focus on the productive ways to support people who are struggling. 

Jessup: So, people in Tennessee, parents, children, they’re dealing with bullying and suicide. But what does that look like for adults? 

Dr. Kelly: Daily, adults are dealing with various workplace wellness issues. MHA has a program called “Mind the Workplace – Workplace Wellness.” This program provides presentations, resources, and real conversations about issues that adults deal with in the workplace. The most popular presentations are stress in the workplace, workplace bullying, and healthy communications (implementing coping strategies with co-workers are toxic).  For more information, please visit the website

Jessup: How does the Coronavirus impact those struggling with mental health or just generally impact the health of those around us?

Dr. Kelly: Coronavirus significantly affects the mental health of everyone differently. People living with mental illness and people dealing with ways to cope with this global health pandemic, their all dealing with traumatic stress and social media overload on top of unemployment and household concerns. 

The current state of mental health in Tennessee is a fragile work in progress; however, we have hope. The mental health and medical professionals are working together to develop options to help the public during this pandemic. At MHA we continue to help by providing different resources/ information to people in crisis as well as flood our social media platforms with crisis hotline numbers to help people in need.

Jessup: With children not in school right now and those isolated at home, resources may not be as obvious to those struggling. What can we as a society to do help our community know resources are available?

Dr. Kelly: Absolutely. You can find a lot of resources on the following Instagram(s): @I.C.hope, @Mental Health America, @Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, and calling the Crisis Text Line. The Crisis Text Line  (text them at 741741) has crisis counselors that are available to help. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) has trained staff that are available to provide help for people who are suffering silently. The Tennessee Statewide Crisis Line (855-CRISIS-1)  helps individuals struggling with mental health emergencies.  Follow these resources, share them on your social media pages and talk about them with friends and family. Awareness and outreach are what connects the solution to the need. 

Jessup: You’ve mentioned that we need to pull from all the dimensions — spiritual, social, emotional, intellectual, environmental, physical, and occupational — to be healthy. Is there one that we should focus on first or is it so individualized?

Dr. Kelly: Mental health, just like physical and emotional health, must be a priority in order to thrive and be healthy. You should not focus on one dimension to meet all your health needs. What if you [only] focused on emotional health and ignored the other dimensions of wellness? You might be emotionally healthy, but you do not physically feel like going to work? It is like a domino effect; all the other dimensions will soon suffer and feelings on instability and depression [could] surface. Every dimension requires an equal balance to achieve optimal health and wellness. My recommendation is to focus on every dimension and find time daily/ weekly to participate in activities from each dimension.   

Thank you for that question, Dallas, as a public health specialist, I love discussions focusing on how to become the best version of yourself. 

Jessup: I know you’re not a clinician, but are there some indicators to identify if someone should seek help? You talk a lot about the difference between being sad and being depressed, is there a line there?

Dr. Kelly:  (smiling) No, I am not a clinician. However, I am trained in various prevention programs and have numerous certifications. I love my job. Public health professionals and social workers have similar goals and experience similar frustrations. In saying that, I feel very comfortable providing help and resources to people in need. 

As an adult, if you are feeling sad and angry all the time (more than two weeks) and you notice that you are not yourself – it may be time to seek professional help. Seek therapy if you are experiencing uncontrollable sadness and/or feeling hopeless all the time. If you are turning to drugs, alcohol, food, or even intimacy, to cope with those feelings, that could be a sign that you need help. If you have lost someone or something important to you that can be a risk factor/ trigger. Everyone’s trauma is different, and we should not minimize someone else’s trauma.  

This is when our words have so much power. We must watch our words and avoid statements like, “That’s not a big deal.”  It may not be a big deal to you, but that person might be seriously struggling with how to get past this one experience. Do not minimize their experience, especially when they chose to share their lived experiences and trauma with you. 

If you find you cannot do the things you like to do (i.e. coloring, watching TV, reading, exercising, or talking to friends) it might be time to seek professional help. 

Jessup: When you’re going into schools to work with young children about mental health and coping skills, how do children respond? 

Dr. Kelly: I love how we (MHA employees) are advocates in the schools and communities. We have students talk to us because we are experts and provide evidence-based curricula; but most of all we’re “bright and shiny.” (laughing).  The reality is we special guests for the day and we are having important conversations that are relevant to students surviving at school. We are there to raise awareness, teach coping skills, and connect students to resources available to help them manage their mental health and well-being. 

Dallas, the two things that I hear the most among students of all ages, “My parents don’t believe me. They won’t get me help”, or  “I’m afraid to speak up because nobody will believe me.” This might be one of the saddest parts of the job. Our goal is to get students connected with the resources available at school and make sure (when applicable) all parties have followed proper mandated reporting and school protocols.  

Jessup: I personally have found that when kids are given a platform to communicate and share their perspective and story, it’s amazing the breakthroughs that can happen. What can we do as parents to help our kids feel safe in explaining their story/experience/feelings?

Dr. Kelly: While this does not represent every parent, I have certainly met parents who do not believe that their child is suffering from a mental illness. This could be based on cultural beliefs or pre-existing biases. Dallas, stigma exists, and sometimes words will affect children more than the diagnosis. Children have told us that their parents say things like, “You don’t have a mental health issue. It’s nerves”, or “You’re not depressed.  Walk that off. I want you to go outside and think happy thoughts.” 

There is a disconnect. Here are some things we know, when parents see their child suffering, they feel helpless and many times on the fence regarding if they believe the symptoms or behavior. Many times, they are very verbal and do not want their child seeing a mental health clinician. As parents/ guardians, we must accept our child’s diagnosis. 

From personal experience with my own child, I truly believe that as parents we need to educate ourselves on the resources and network with other parents. I can guarantee, our child is not the only child dealing with mental health concerns/issues. So, now we’ve got to find out what other parents are doing and ask them the questions of “How are you coping? What have you been doing? Are you seeing a therapist? Do you like them? Do you recommend another one?”  

These are some great questions to ask. As parents, we can also call, talk to the counselor, and/or befriend other parents. We are all busy, but we all need support. When we make those connections, we have successfully created a strong support circle that can help us cope with crisis. 

Parents should try to listen and not judge. Rather than asking, “Why?” which sounds very, very, judgmental, we can ask, “How?” and “What?” questions. “How can I help him? What needs to be done?” Guess what? If our children are dealing with the diagnosis, and we are taking it really, really, hard, how are our children feeling/coping? We should take “us” out of the equation because we all want to advocate for our kids. We should not let “our” shame/stigma interfere with our child getting help. 

Jessup: You mentioned earlier that bullying is a major underlying issue to mental illness / mental health from the time we’re young all the way into the workplace. What are some tactics that parents can use to discuss bullying with their kids?

Dr. Kelly: Our Kindergarten through Fifth-grade programs are fun and engaging. Counselors/ teachers select books (from a curated selection) and we read them aloud with various other activities. The books talk about a specified topic and we like our kids to be engaged and entertained. We want students to ask questions and read back some of the books to us. Dallas, it’s not easy being a child sitting and listening to a guest speaker, therefore, we work hard to make the ETSY experience interactive. 

In our presentations, we talk about seeking a “trusted adult.” We spend some time discussing and identifying trusted adults in every presentation. We like to start conversations that are age-appropriate and relevant to every student. Students will ask questions like, “Well, what do I do if the bully is bigger than me?” and we will usually follow-up with, “That’s a great question.  Does anybody else have that concern?” Thirty percent of the children will usually raise their hands raise their hands. This gives us the opportunity to address real concerns for 1-4th graders.  

Jessup: If someone is interested in helping decrease mental illness stigma, how can they get involved?

Dr. Kelly: Get involved with organizations that make it their mission to help people living with mental health issues and illnesses. That’s it. 

There’s so many out there, however here are some of the ones locally:

Jessup: Anything else you’d like to mention in terms of mental health and illness?

Dr. Kelly: Absolutely. Online screening is one of the quickest and easiest ways to determine whether you are experiencing symptoms from a mental health condition. Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are real and common, they are also treatable. Recovery is possible. At Mental Health America, we have a free online screening tool on our website. 

Say, for example, you get anxious every time you hear something about Coronavirus. The tool will give you a printout with a lot of great resources: books, blogs to read, podcasts to listen to, and crisis helplines. Telehealth is another helpful resource and relevant during this time of pandemic. People can set up appointments and get help from your living room. Please do not sit in silence and suffer because it is not okay not to be okay. You have to get help.

Lastly, treat everybody with dignity and respect. Offer support and encouragement. If we see somebody being discriminated against because of mental illness, we have a voice. Let’s stand up for them. What happened to kindness? We would do it if it was a family member. Remember it’s against the law to deny jobs or services to anyone with mental health diagnosis.