Sunday, February 11, 2018

People Are Still People First

As many know, I work in the field of addiction treatment. I work in a facility that provides services to those who are dual diagnosis. These clients are dealing with both mental illness and addiction issues. The challenges inherent in providing adequate and effective treatment are numerous. The urgency of providing effective care is multiplied when we consider that the risk of suicide increases for mentally ill persons who also struggle with substance abuse.

In my field, it is critical to address the stigma that impacts both mental illness and addiction. We also must share best practices for providing treatment for individuals who are suffering from these co-occurring disorders. It's not easy and we rely on experts to help lead the way.

David Susman, PhD is one such expert. His dedication to the field of mental health recovery is impressive, as is his experience. Perhaps though, the most impressive thing about David Susman, Ph.D, is his personal commitment to combating the stigma that plagues mental illness.

Dr. David Susman grew up in Southwestern Virginia and now lives in Lexington, Kentucky. He is married with one daughter. He is a dog lover and when talking about his family, he always mentions his Westie, Bella. When he finds himself with free time, he enjoys reading and travel photography.

Professionally, he is a clinical psychologist and has been working in the mental health care field for twenty five years. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Kentucky. He is also the director of the Jesse G. Harris, Jr. Psychological Services Center, which trains clinical psychology doctoral students in providing psychological testing and therapy.

Among his many other credentials, are the following:
  • Member of the Association of Psychology Training Clinics
  • Training Director at the University of Kentucky Internship Consortium
  • Former President of the Kentucky Psychological Association
  • and the Kentucky representative to the American Psychological Association's Council of Representatives
Dr. Susman also regularly gives back to the mental health community. He has contributed his expertise to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and has been active in mental health advocacy initiatives at the state and Federal levels.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Susman estimates that he has helped to provide care for over 50,000 people who are struggling with mental illness, in both inpatient and outpatient settings.

On the topic of mental health, he has a lot to say and he is worth listening to.

One of the first things that Dr. Susman discussed with me was the importance of combating the stigma that is so often associated with mental illness. He explained that mental illness is often invisible and some people are unable to get appropriate care because they don't want to discuss their stigmatized disease. Many people who are suffering don't reach out because they fear being discriminated against.

"We need to keep putting out accurate information about treatment options, supports, and coping strategies," says Dr. Susman.

The fear of being judged that discourages people from reaching out can have tragic consequences. The impact of stigma on individuals who are suffering from mental illness can not be understated. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

Stigma causes people to feel ashamed for something that is out of their control. Worst of all, stigma prevents people from seeking the help they need. For a group of people who already carry such a heavy burden, stigma is an unacceptable addition to their pain.

Dr. Susman wants the public to know that we can all help to ensure that those suffering from mental illness get the help they need.

"I believe it's important for us to speak up on their behalf and keep the topics of mental illness and mental health on the table. We need to keep stating that's it's ok to come forward and ask for help," he says. "We need to tell people that effective treatments are available, and that ultimately it is possible to reduce distress and have a better quality of life."

Ultimately though, Dr. Susman recognizes that in order to begin to successfully treat mental illness, we must start by acknowledging the human being behind the diagnosis.

"We have to continue to show that people are still people first, and not just their illness." 

Dr. Susman recognizes that everyone's path to recovery is unique. He encourages those who suffer with mental illness to be patient and remain determined. 

"Different treatments work well for some and not as well for others. So, it's important to be open to keep trying new approaches to therapy, different medications, and so on, to find the combination that works best for you," he says, noting that finding the right treatment can be a slow process.

"It's important to get lots of support from friends, family, and health care professionals along the way. Also, talk with people who are at various stages in their own recovery to hear about their experiences and get tips for things to try that may help you feel better."
While the mental health care field continues to work towards finding the most effective ways to diagnose and treat mental illness, Dr. Susman fully recognizes the urgency. Ultimately, some mental illnesses have the potential to be fatal. Research suggests that up to 90% of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness at the time of their death.

Dr, Susman also recognizes the pain that is left behind when someone dies this way.

"It is an unfathomable loss," he acknowledges. 

He has many suggestions for moving through the grief, including taking as much time as needed and reaching out for help. He also suggest that channeling one's grief into positive action can be helpful.

"Supporting groups and activities aimed at suicide prevention or perhaps starting a scholarship fund or foundation in the name of the loved one who died, can help." 

He also points out that feelings of guilt can make things worse.

"Each of us has to deal with grief and loss in our own way and in our own time. It's important to not fixate on what could have been done differently or to imagine that the suicide should have been predicted in some way."   

Dr. Susman's most important message though, is aimed toward those who are still alive, but struggle with thoughts of suicide. He urges them to take their feelings seriously and to get help immediately, emphasizing the importance of finding a good therapist. He also believes that a person should be open to considering medication if it is recommended by a professional. Healthy nutrition, physical activity, rest, and sleep are all important. Enjoyable activities such as humor, and interacting with friends and family are important too.

"Learn coping skills to tolerate distress and to manage difficult emotions and situations," Dr. Susman says. "Develop a safety plan and use it, including calling for help immediately if you are in crisis."

To provide hope, Dr. Susman wants those struggling to remember that suicidal thoughts may come and go, but with patience and work, they can eventually go away entirely or at least reach a more manageable level. 

"Above all else, don't give up trying and don't lose hope. You can find a way forward, sometimes when you least expect it," he says. 

"Finally, it's been said many times, but you are not alone. Help is available, but you must reach out when you need it."

For the past three years, Dr. Susman has had a public blog.

"My goal is to provide proven, science-based information and resources to offer support, hope, inspiration and encouragement to persons in recovery and to those who care about them," he says.

On his blog you can find 'Stories of Hope', a series that features individuals who bravely talk about their personal life experiences with mental health issues. Dr. Susman also shares research, data, and both expert and personal opinions regarding mental health. He discusses current events, hot-topic stories, and other timely issues.

Last November, Dr. Susman posted about the importance of gratitude in a person's life. In his post, he offered the following:

"I think the tremendous power of gratitude is under appreciated and underused. We could all benefit from expressing our thanks on a more consistent basis." 

On that note, speaking on behalf of others working in the field of mental health, as well as someone whose life has been touched by mental health issues in many different ways, I thank Dr. David Susman for all he is doing to pave the way for a healthier more joyful life for us all.

You can find Dr. Susman's blog, here:

David Susman, PhD - Resources and Inspiration for Better Mental Health

You can follow Dr. Susman on Twitter here:


Dr. Susman has a Facebook page, here:

David Susman PhD