New podcast aims to start conversations about mental health

Laurie Allen
Dr. Luan Phan and Rick Milenthal

Words matter.

Rick Milenthal’s career is about giving clients the right words to persuade people and connect with them.

Dr. Luan Phan is chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and knows the power of words to give rise to emotions and find ways out of darkness.

Together they’ve created a podcast to start tough but necessary conversations about turbulent feelings and living through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. "The Voices of Resilience" uses thought leaders in mental health who share their personal stories about finding meaning and emotional health under duress.

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Milenthal, CEO of The Shipyard marketing agency, said Phan jumped at the opportunity when he reached out to him. “It is critical for me that we make an impact,” Phan says. “I want to go beyond superficial conversations and sound bites that go viral. Fifteen-[second] snippets aren’t going to get the job done. We have to, for lack of a better word, get down and dirty. We’re searching for raw emotion rather than skimming the surface.”

Conversations about mental health are particularly difficult because they involve stigma and shame.

A friend of Milenthal’s lost his son to suicide, which in part drove his interest in talking about the taboo subject. Feelings of hopelessness and despair are common among those who end their lives, “and this pandemic amps everything up. The world is having trouble talking about this, and I think the conversation needs to be more vibrant.”

The podcast's first five episodes feature the voices of people who have grappled their way through visceral pain to become beacons for others, and share how personal trauma and grief have fueled their passion to help others navigate stress and adversity. They include Milenthal’s colleague, whose son took his life at age 17, and Holly Kastan, whose infant daughter died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome more than 20 years ago while and she and her husband took a short  break away from home. In 2005, she helped found OSU’s STAR (Stress, Trauma and Resilience) program and served as its director until 2014. 

With COVID, our initial emotions centered around worry, fear and anxiety about the virus itself, Phan says. As physical distancing became the norm, emotions turned to grief and fear of the unknown, he says. We experienced grief over loss, most seriously in the case of a loved one’s death. As the implications of the pandemic trickled down, there were losses of jobs, savings, security, daily routines and the ability to celebrate. Graduations, family reunions, vacations and visits were canceled abruptly. Perhaps most importantly, people suffered the loss of normalcy and being able to connect with others, Phan says. 

We’re then in a state of “anticipatory grief. “We worry, what can I still lose? Fear of the unknown is one of the most fundamental fears we have as human beings."

In those situations and the grave ones in which people contemplate suicide or overdose on drugs, giving voice to the problem can bring healing, Milenthal believes. 

From where he sits, Phan sees alarming trends emerging from silence. In this country, approximately 130 people are dying each day to suicide, and 130 to 140 to drug overdose, he says. “To be honest, treatments haven’t done jack. We have spent more in Gross Domestic Product than any other country, and while their rates are going down, ours are up. We are bucking the wrong trend – we have to do something different.”

Milenthal says one of those things should be corporate support of mental health and encouraging workplace conversations. “I believe we’re at a tipping point.”

"Most workplace conversations are shallow and center on deadlines” and other necessary daily obligations, but there’s also need a for people to feel safe exposing their emotions during the workday, he believes. Also, “Major corporations and the business world need to begin to look at these issues and make commitments to mental health. My hope and my goal is that corporations get involved with this at the foundation level … they’re already involved in cancer and heart disease but very few are involved in mental health.”

Milenthal says he has no business interest in the podcasts and plans to continue them. “My plan is to do this for years to come.”

The Shipyard launched the WonderBus music festival last summer to promote mental health awareness and support efforts to combat depression and strengthen suicide prevention programs. Phan, who also is chief of Psychiatry Services at OSU, was involved in that effort as well.

As devastating as the pandemic is, he believes it may a blessing in disguise. People have slowed down and turned inward, allowing them time and space to examine emotions. 

Ohio Health Director Dr. Amy Acton  this week again emphasized her growing concern for people’s mental health and encouraging to seek help if they are feeling overwhelmed. “There can be such a cure if we start talking about this,” Milenthal says. “The issue is you feel so alone.”

Listen to "The Voices of Resilience" on Apple podcasts or Spotify.