Stopping the Stigma


Mental health care services are vital to our community’s wellness

My childhood dream was always to play professional sports. This aspiration was no passing fancy. It defined who I was, and I couldn’t imagine a life that did not center around athletic competition.

As I stepped off a bus at the Chicago Bears practice facility in spring 1991, that dream neared reality. But within minutes, it was snatched away from me. Instead of following the rest of my fellow rookies to the fieldhouse where we would don pads and practice jerseys and head out to the field to show the coaches what we had, I was escorted to the director of player personnel’s office. There I was informed that the knee injury I had suffered months prior prevented me from playing for the Bears. I was handed a plane ticket and sent home.  

I was devastated and humiliated. Not only had I failed to achieve a lifelong goal, but I had also done so—at least in my mind—publicly with the whole world watching, or at the very least, everyone who was important to me. For weeks, my only comfort was found in closing my bedroom door, shutting out the world, and immersing my mind in a destructive cycle of thoughts that drove me deeper into depression. While I feel grateful to have come out the other side, I will never forget that feeling of hopelessness. Emotions spilled beyond my control, and I realized that mental health challenges can strike anyone, regardless of how strong we think we might be.

Here in Knox County, one in five people were in need of mental health care before the COVID-19 pandemic began. That rate has doubled since then, says Ben Harrington, CEO of the Mental Health Association of East Tennessee. Common problems include anxiety disorders, major depression, phobias, and bipolar disorder. And these can often lead to or become coupled with other challenges, making those suffering in further need of care and assistance.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 25 percent of people with a serious mental illness also suffer with a substance misuse disorder. Mental health challenges are also often tied to suicide, with research finding that almost half of suicide victims had a known mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death in Knox County and on the rise across the state, particularly among ages 10 to 24. In 2017, more than one-third of Knox County high school students reported experiencing a depressive episode during the previous year. In 2018, almost 20 percent of middle school students had seriously thought about committing suicide; 6.3 percent attempted to end their life.

This is a heartbreaking reality; our most vulnerable populations are being seriously impacted by their mental health. For years, society has stigmatized mental health, preferring to ignore the problem and the people suffering rather than to face it head-on. Fortunately, that attitude is changing. The State of Tennessee provides an array of services and support for individuals suffering with mental health issues. These include not only crisis services and suicide prevention, but long-term assistance like peer recovery services, housing services, and employment support. Locally, several providers specialize in mental health services. These include the McNabb Center and Cherokee Health Systems, among others. Our hospital providers—the University of Tennessee Medical Center, Covenant Health, and Tennova Healthcare—are also on hand to help. This is good news. Knox County has more mental health providers than most Tennessee counties.

And yet our residents are still facing barriers to receiving the help they need. Services continue to remain inaccessible to low-income populations. And since losing the state-run Lakeshore Mental Health Institute in 2012 and the closure of the Physicians Regional Medical Center, the number of staffed inpatient psychiatric care beds has dropped more than 90 percent—from 189 in 2010 to merely 16 in 2019.

Knox County and the City of Knoxville are working together to establish a new psychiatric facility at the former St. Mary’s Hospital campus in North Knoxville. The facility would be run by the McNabb Center and provide additional beds for folks without private insurance. The goal is not only to increase the number of psychiatric beds in the area, but hopefully act as a diversion away from incarceration for folks suffering a mental health crisis. It is slated to open in 2022.

As we work from the public sector, some of the county’s private health providers are also working in this realm through the 2022-slated openings of East Tennessee Behavioral Health (Covenant Health) and the Knoxville Center for Behavioral Medicine (a partnership of National HealthCare Corporation, Tennova, UT Medical Center, and Reliant Healthcare Corporation).

Knox County is soon bringing efforts together by hosting a regional summit to discuss mental health services with providers, regional elected officials, and other stakeholders. Our goal is to identify further the needs and gaps and work together to leverage the assets that each organization brings to the table. It seems we are all recognizing the needs existing in our community and are working to continue destigmatizing mental health and create usable resources to ensure the needs of those two in every five people are met.

Our mental health is vital, and we ignore it at our own risk. I know from my own experience that mental health issues do not discriminate. It can truly happen to anyone. But I also know that with the proper help and resources, there is hope for those impacted.


September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741-741.

1 Comment
  1. Harold A Maio says

    —-Stopping The Stigma????

    You likely mean stop supporting those taught and teaching it.

    If not, please consider taking that approach.

    Harold A Maio

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