Working from Experience

The director of the Office of Consumer Affairs under SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services use her past to shape her job

Keris Myrick talks about Advocacy Barbie, a tool she created to talk about mental health.

Keris Myrick talks about Advocacy Barbie, a tool she created to talk about mental health. Photo: Heather Mongilio

by Heather Mongilio

Talking about mental illness can be a challenge.

But Keris Myrick has found a solution to starting a conversation with people about mental health. Myrick, who said she is shy, carries a Barbie with her to conferences and conventions. She named the doll “Advocacy Barbie” and uses it to help people open up about their experiences with mental health.

“[People will ask] like why does that adult have a Barbie? And they’ll ask me, ‘What is that for? What does that stand for? Does it mean anything?’” Myrick said. “And I’ll be like, ‘oh she’s Advocacy Barbie.’ ‘Well, what does she do?’ ‘Oh, well she helps people talk about mental health issues.’ ‘Mental health, well you know my cousin has,’ you know, ‘or I have,’ and suddenly it sort of opens this conversation that’s very easy to have.”

Keris Myrick serves at the director of Consumer Affairs, a department in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Mental Health Services. The Center for Mental Health Services works to increase the quality and accessibility of treatment, according to its website. Myrick is responsible for communication between departments, and while her job is not directly related to mental health services, she said she hopes to bring the perspective of someone with a mental health disorder to the office.

Myrick was diagnosed with a mental illness while pursuing degrees in business and organizational psychology.

““As I was going through the treatment and accessing care and the system—mental health and health system—I had lots of questions…” -Keris Myrick

“As I was going through the treatment and accessing care and the system—mental health and health system—I had lots of questions about why does this happen, why doesn’t insurance pay for this, I don’t understand this or can we do it this way or what about this, sort of my typical, inquisitive self,” Myrick said.

Throughout her career, she has focused on the importance of the emotional well-being of people she worked with, both in her previous position in college admissions or her current role.

“I think [mental health] has something to do with a person’s emotional well-being and understanding the effects of just your whole health and wellness and its impact or the interdependence of finances, education, housing, spiritual, your physical health,” she said. “How are all of those things interdependent, including your emotional or mental health.”

One of the challenges to the mental-health community is access to services, Myrick said.

“You know when we say that, I think a lot of time we use the term beds,” Myrick said. “There are not enough beds. And I personally prefer to, and I think it’s what SAMHSA does, even though we may say, because it’s easy, beds, but I think what we are really saying is that access to recovery and resiliency oriented treatment that’s effective, helps people to recover is sometimes not available to people.”

“I kind of wish mental health centers would look like someone’s living room.” -Keris Myrick

This may be due to the number of people trying to get help, she said. It also has to do with people thinking too narrowly about what defines the systems for mental health treatment. It is more complex than seeking treatment at a hospital.

Insurance can also be problematic with accessing services. There are limits to the amount of days people can stay in a hospital for mental health treatment, she said.

“So nobody says, ‘oh, you can only have three days,’ if I popped a blood vessel, I’m just making up something. I don’t know. They don’t say, ‘oh, you can have three days, you can have five days,’” Myrick said. “There are reviews but they aren’t these sort of interesting limits. In mental health, generally, it’s about three days.”

There is legislature, such as the Affordable Care Act and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, that can help the limitations on services from insurance and create more equality between mental and physical health services, she said.

But the difficulties with access do not always have to do with the amount of openings to see a psychologist or insurance, she said. There is a lot of shame and stigma around talking about mental health, which can deter people from seeking treatment.

Approximately one in five people have a mental illness, according to  the National Alliance on Mental Illness. However, nearly two-thirds of people with diagnosable mental illness do not seek treatment. The shame and stigma around mental health is one of the reason people shy away from seeking help, according to NAMI.

Although Myrick has only been at SAMHSA for less than a year, she has already worked on increasing awareness through a project called Wellness Week.

Wellness Week, which occurs in the third week of September, is used to help spread wellness tips to help increase the lifetime of people with mental illness. Each day is about a different dimension of wellness, from physical to intellectual. The week also has activities across the United States.

SAMSHA hosts a wellness week because people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness die younger than people without a diagnosis, Myrick said. They are also a high risk for heart disease, according to a NAMI report on wellness.

As part of the campaign, SAMHSA shared wellness tips with #sharewellness on Twitter. The campaign exceeded expectations, blowing the Google analytics and reaching beyond the target audience, Myrick said.

Although Myrick’s job as director is not directly involved in mental health, she said, there are still many changes she wishes to see, especially to mental health facilities. Currently, facilities are unwelcoming and feel like a prison instead of a health center. Patients can’t easily move around, and staff members sit behind glass. They aren’t like the typical physician’s office, she said.

“I kind of wish mental health centers would look like someone’s living room,” Myrick said. “Welcoming.”

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