Mental Health America

Mental Health America Tom Starling, CEO of Mental Health America, discusses recent trends in mental health, and how his agency supports local education for young people and serves as a clearing house for local mental health resources.

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Janet McCutchen: Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt University Health and Wellness Wellcast. I am Janet McCutchen with Work/Life Connections. Today, I am here with Tom Starling who is the CEO of Mental Health America of Middle Tennessee, and today, we are going to be talking about mental health in general because May is mental health awareness month. Tom, I am really interested in you taking about some of the latest trends in mental health. What are you seeing at your agency? Tom Starling: You know, there is a lot. Mental Health America, we are actually the nation’s largest and oldest mental health advocacy organization, and locally, we have been around for 67 years. Our national organization kind of keeps us abreast of some of the trends. It might be parity or equality that mental health needs with physical health, and more and more policies are catching up so that you can get the same number of visits for your mental health as you might for physical health. There is also as you might expect with the latest new story some trends with violence. In mental health, I think a lot of people do not realize that 96% of violent crime is actually committed by people without a mental illness, and so it is those types of statistics that are currently trending right now, and then we also have a trend locally toward more collaboration. I do not know if it is the economy that is really forcing us to do more of that, but at our agency, I know with open arms, we have kind of braced that and have the gun partnering with agencies like the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, the Licensed Professional Counselors Association, the Eating Disorders Coalition. So now, you can call our office, and we could help to make even better referral. So, we are able to serve more, we are able to serve those whom we have been serving, we can serve them better, and together we are really able to do less with more. So, it is really good to see that broad umbrella of mental health is kind of coalescing, kind of defragmenting the system. Janet McCutchen: Well, that is really exciting to hear about, and I know that we hear a lot in the news about our youth, certainly nationally and in our community. What kinds of issues do you see that the youth of our community face and what kind of resources does your agency provide for them? Tom Starling: That is so important, not just because they are the children, but actually I think there is a statistic that says half of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14. So, you certainly want to have preventive or earlier help or early intervention. We do a few things. We have a program called I.C. Hope. I.C. Hope is actually our ambassador. He is a duck puppet or a duck mascot. He goes in and sees about 19,000 children a year and tells them “Don't Duck Mental Health.” So, that is his message, and he goes in, and he will talk about bullying, handling emotions, anger, and grief, and for the older youth, he does not show up. We might reference I.C. Hope who will also talk to older middle schoolers and young adults about eating disorder, body image, suicide prevention, more age appropriate things that I.C. Hope is really making a difference. Janet McCutchen: That is very exciting, so he frames it up in a friendly way for the younger kids, very positive image about mental health rather than looking at it from a mental illness kind of perspective? Tom Starling: That is exactly right, and he tries to let them know two things. Actually, Vanderbilt researchers show the program to be effective in increasing mental health knowledge and also in encouraging children’s help-seeking behavior that they know where to turn for help. Janet McCutchen: So, you say you go out. You go out to the schools. Do you also serve other areas? Who do you work with when you bring him out into the communities? Tom Starling: The I.C. Hope has got a good ambassador. We are usually in the class rooms of about 20, but we have started doing some assembly shows, and now we are being asked more and more to talk to PTAs and the teachers, and he is almost over the last dozen years. He is almost like McGruff the Crime Dog or Smokey the Bear. You see him and you just think of that message. So, even some high school graduates are coming back and helping us work with I.C. Hope and getting him into boys and girls clubs or scouts or some after school programs, which is really wonderful. Janet McCutchen: That is very exciting because he certainly addresses some pretty heavy areas of concern like bullying and eating disorders from the older children but does it in a really healthy positive way. It is a very positive spin on it. Tom Starling: And that’s ultimately the goal is to reduce the stigma so that people know it is okay to get help that raising your hand and asking for health is not a weakness, and in fact, it takes courage. Janet McCutchen: So, you do have a website as well, so that would be what, where to log on? Tom Starling: It is named after our hero, it is Janet McCutchen: Awesome. Well, Tom Starling, thank you so very much for coming in and visiting with us today. It sounds like your agency serves the entire lifespan and a wonderful area of service for our community. Thank you very much. Tom Starling: Thank you, Janet. Janet McCutchen: Thanks for listening. Please feel free to leave us any comments on this Wellcast by clicking the “Add New Comment” link at the bottom of this page. If you have a story or suggestion, please email it to us at, or you can use the “Contact Us” link on our website at Thanks for listening. -- end of recording  --