Tom Starling—Mental Health America

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

Before Stage 4—Mental Health America

“Before Stage 4!” Tom Starling, the chief executive of Mental Health America (MHA) of Middle Tennessee, explains his organization’s mantra: “People with something wrong with their body wouldn’t knowingly wait until the disease reached Stage 4 before seeking treatment. But when something is wrong mentally or emotionally, they suffer in silence.” Why? Because of the stigma that society attaches to mental illness.

MHA is not a direct-client service provider for persons with mental illness. Rather, their role is to crack open the hard shell of the stigma so that more people can move from suffering to recovery. A big crack starts with the awareness of just how many people are affected by the diseases labeled “mental illness”: 1 in 5 annually!

Some of those people might come to mind quickly, perhaps ones with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but many more are “under the radar.” Mental illness spans the spectrum from “womb to tomb,” including moms with post-partum depression, children with anxiety or attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), teens who are bullied and become suicidal or who are in the grip of an eating disorder, soldiers with post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) or addiction or depression, employees stressed to the max with family and worklife pressures, adults self-mediating their pain with alcohol or opiods, caregivers of their aging loved ones with dementia. All these illnesses take a huge toll on the individual, family, and society. Suicide, for example, is the 10thleading cause of death in Tennessee, greater than the number caused by car accidents.

After the illness “blows up” and can no longer be denied (Stage 4), people often say they “knew something was wrong.” But they didn’t know what was going on or where to turn for the prevention and intervention (at Stages 1–3) that could have helped. The Stigma had blamed the signs on bad parenting or sin, or on the individual being lazy or not taking responsibility or just being “trouble.” MHA’s goal is to educate individuals, families, caregivers, pastors, law enforcement, and society, moving them past the stigma to recognizing the signs and to helping those who suffer receive services that lead to recovery and greater well-being.

How do volunteers help? MHA of Middle Tennessee has numerous, important one-time opportunities, such as preparing for a health fair or other educational event, staffing the registration table at events or screenings, writing thank you notes to donors, scanning papers into the computer, or answering the phone. But volunteers who have a story to share have an opportunity to make an even bigger impact. They’ve lived through a mental illness of their own or of a family member. The reality—and the hope—they bring to a conversation, a workshop, or a speaking engagement is more powerful than all the statistics.

Volunteers do not need to have a counseling background. MHA provides training for the tasks, concentrating on the words not to use (the ones that inadvertently reinforce the stigma) but especially on the words to use in talking with people and sharing their story so that 1 in 5 people get help before Stage 4!

In Middle Tennessee to find out more or to volunteer, call 615-269-5355 or visit the website,

Mental Health America is a nationwide organization with more than 100 years of service. To find a chapter near you, visit

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