Erasing the Stigma

Mental health comes front and center as significant priority during pandemic

By Michael J. Billoni

For the past four decades, Ken Houseknecht has been associated with the Mental Health Advocates of Western New York, the last nine as its executive director.

During that time, one of its primary goals has been ending the stigmas associated with mental illness. In a way, Houseknecht said the COVID-19 pandemic is helping to do just that.

“One of the good things to come from this pandemic — and there are some good things — is the lowering of ‘stigma,’ the barrier to getting help,” Houseknecht says. “Everyone is experiencing some degree of anxiety, depression and stress and for many, it’s acute. Fortunately, discussing mental health is commonplace right now. If you need help, get help. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of humanity.”

Houseknecht, who received the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award at its 58th annual dinner recently, one day before large gatherings were banned, says the mental health system in America was in trouble well before the pandemic. Spending on mental health was the single-largest health care cost, by far, and expenditures there were growing twice as fast as other areas, he points out.

“Sadly, all of the trends — even with all of this money being spent — were not moving in the right direction,” he explains. “Now, in the wake of this pandemic, an already stressed and inadequate system is enduring challenges that no one ever envisioned. How can — how must — we respond?

“Let’s start with the obvious. It’s always better — from a human and financial perspective — to keep people mentally strong and resilient. Like never before, we need to increase the emphasis on awareness, education, prevention, early detection, and early intervention. It is far better to keep people healthy than wait until they are ill,” he adds.

Helping oneself

“We know there are specific — and very easy and often free — things that folks can and must do to preserve and promote their mental health, especially now. Proper sleep, exercise, good nutrition, mindfulness, strong relationships, limiting technology, and spirituality are some sure steps,” Houseknecht said.

During this pandemic, he has seen the mental health community — from clinicians to mental health advocates — find creative ways to address today’s unprecedented challenges and mounting needs. From telehealth to creative uses of technology, people are finding ways to both provide and get help.

“Every aspect of society is being tested right now,” he says. “Outmoded ways of thinking and acting are giving way to innovative ideas and solutions. Necessity, as always, is the mother of invention. Stay focused. Stay strong. Focus on what you can control and we will all get through this. And — if we stick with these simple steps — we’ll come out stronger on the other side.”

Houseknecht, who annual dresses as Superman for MHA’s annual Superhero Walk & Run for Children’s Mental Health, donned his costume and arranged for other superheroes to join him in early April at the Erie County Medical Center to greet nurses at their shift change.

“These are the real heroes,” he said.

The MHA website is

“One of the good things to come from this pandemic — and there are some good things — is the lowering of ‘stigma,’ the barrier to getting help.”

Ken Houseknecht,
Executive director at Mental Health Advocates of Western New York