09 Jun Shining a Light on Mental Illness
Dr. Barrie Baker Spotlights Her Own Personal Battle
Barrie Baker, MD, MBA is at the top of her profession. She holds three graduate degrees and is the Chief Medical Officer in the Public Plans division of Tufts Health Plan. Married for 25 years with two wonderful, grown children, Dr. Baker loves to travel, cook, and create art. Yet her success masks a personal secret she has long held—one which she believes others in the medical profession also keep. Now, to prompt others in the field and help lift the stigma that surrounds mental illness, she’s revealing that she manages a mental health condition.
“The only way to fight the stigma is for everyone who has a mental illness to say so,” says Dr. Baker. “It’s hard to stigmatize a quarter of the population.”
Outwardly naturally cheerful and optimistic, Dr. Baker admits that she’s had thoughts of suicide and periods of minor depression since her youth. In her 20s, she was initially diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. “I don’t fit well into a specific DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) diagnosis due to my symptoms and responses to various treatments,” says Dr. Baker. Her first major depressive episode and suicide attempt came in her early 30s. That’s also when she experienced major stigma at an unlikely place.
Physical Illness v. Mental Illness: Dr. Baker’s Experience with Stigma
Mental health conditions – including depression and anxiety – affect one in five adults and are the number one cause of workplace disability. Unlike physical illnesses, they carry a stigma that prevents people from discussing them.
Dr. Baker recalls her second year of medical school. She was hospitalized after a suicide attempt and missed six weeks of classes. Upon returning, she learned that another student – who had also missed six weeks of school due to mononucleosis – was being given a chance to make up the semester. Dr. Baker asked that she be given the same protocol, but says she was denied. When questioned, Dr. Baker says she was told that the other student had what was referred to as a medical illness. “I was required to drop out and repeat the entire semester with a different class,” says Dr. Baker. “I also learned to never mention my mental illness to anyone on a professional level again, especially in the medical profession.”
The Workplace: Support Comes from the Top
Even in the best workplaces, mental illness remains mostly a secret on account of stigma. Those who need help for a loved-one or themselves fear the consequences of disclosure. And, despite the impact that mental illness can have on a person’s work productivity, employees are unlikely to share their burden.
Dr. Baker became a Chief Medical Officer at Tufts Health Plan in 2014. “Six months after starting my position, I fell into a major depression for the third time in my life. Two months later, for the first time, I was able to say I needed to be admitted to a hospital rather than attempt or complete suicide.” Dr. Baker returned to work nearly two months later. “I expected to be fired, or led down a path towards termination.” Instead, she says she was appropriately and sensitively transitioned back into work. “A year later, my work and I are treated as if the incident never occurred,” says Dr. Baker. “The support has come from the very top of the company.”
CEOs Against Stigma and In Our Own Voice
CEOs Against Stigma launched in 2015 with a grant from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. The campaign employs top executives and elected leaders from across the Commonwealth to change misconceptions about mental illness by encouraging people to open up and speak freely about the conditions that affect them and their immediate families, and seek treatment.
Tufts Health Plan was one of the first companies to sign on to the CEOs Against Stigma campaign. NAMI Mass provides its signature In Our Own Voice (IOOV) presentation to all companies that participate in the campaign. Recognized by a leading national mental health researcher as the most effective anti-stigma program in America, IOOV features two people sharing their personal stories of recovery.
Tufts Health Plan hosted four IOOV presentations for its employees in 2016. Dr. Baker attended two of them and was so moved that it prompted her to disclose her own mental health condition.
“It was good to hear others’ stories, to have a discussion with someone else who really understands, someone who is also generally successful with their life but has hidden demons in their head.”
Helping Others with Mental Health Conditions
Dr. Baker is in a profession of helping others. Now, she wants take that commitment a step further; she has offered to become a trained IOOV presenter. “I’ve been talking about it more as I get older,” says Dr. Baker. “I’m tired of people blaming everyone else for the stigma. Just admit it yourself.”
She wants people to “come out” and make mental illness a condition that is treated like a physical illness. She admits, “I’m someone who has gone to the depths, lived there for a while and returned not just once, but several times,” but emphasizes that it’s not only possible to live with mental health issues, people can also rise above them.
It’s a message she tries communicating to health professionals, many of whom she says won’t admit their own mental health conditions. She gives an example of a recent health care conference she attended at which a speaker’s topic was the stigma of mental illness. Dr. Baker decided to address the issue head on – asking everyone in the room who had a mental health condition to raise his or her hands. Dr. Baker said only two of about 200 people did.
“That’s why there’s a stigma,” she told the crowd. “Because you, the health care community, are the biggest offenders regarding that stigma. According to the statistics there should be at least 40 hands raised but you can’t even admit to each other you have mental health issues.” Dr. Baker says even then, no one else raised his or her hands.
Managing Mental Health
“Meditation has been my friend and ally for many years,” says Dr. Baker. “Even for a few minutes, it can soothe the soul.” But what works for her, she says, might not work for everyone. She calls “self-monitoring” her most important coping skill. “I’m the final judge. Only I know me.”
She hopes that by telling her story, Dr. Baker will provide hope and courage to others living with a mental health condition, urging people to “keep the faith!”