An Interview with Sharon Engdahl, Executive Director of the American Mental Wellness Association

May 30, 2019

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This month the NCIBH spoke with Sharon Engdahl, Executive Director of the American Mental Wellness Association.

Sharon has worked in the mental health education and research field for over 45 years. She is the founder and executive director of the Mental Wellness Awareness Association. MWAA’s mission is to build healthier lives free of mental health problems through educational outreach.


Could you give us a brief history of the American Mental Wellness Association?

As I was getting ready to retire I decided to use my 40 years of personal and work experience around mental health to start a non-profit. In 2012 the Mental Wellness Awareness Association (MWAA) was established by my me and a group of mental health professionals. Our mission was to focus on mental health education intervention, research and prevention. A few years ago, the MWAA expanded its reach to a national level to unify individuals and organizations under one hub to share and support each others mental health research and educational tools.


How did you first become interested in the space of mental health?

Like many people, I became interested in mental health as a career because of personal experience interacting with the health care system. In college I obtained my behavioral social science degree in order to help my sister and others like her with mental health disorders. I wanted to be an advocate for my sister and for others and felt this degree would help me help them.  Soon after that, I worked as an analyst on the first mental health insurance law enacted in Pennsylvania. The bill was called the Mental Health Insurance Anti-discrimination Act. I worked on this bill for eight years before it was enacted in 1998. During my career, I was also involved in other legislation and shepherded mental health advance directives. My personal experiences with mental illness in my family and my work experiences taught me not to give up on enormous challenges and that change in the health system can benefit those who need it the most.


Can you highlight some primary care specific educational components of the MWAA?  

The American Mental Wellness Association is a one stop hub for information on mental health wellness information, education and research. We use several social media channels to disseminate recent research and educational tools concerning mental health to interested parties. We at MWAA know that early diagnosis and treatment of a mental illness dramatically increases the quality of life and increases the odds of successful outcomes for all patients. Once depression, anxiety, or delusions become entrenched, and legal or financial problems are added to the medical issues it becomes difficult for someone to recognize their need for assistance or help.  We have focused a significant part of our efforts on tools for helping both clinicians and members of the general public recognize the early signs of mental health problems and to learn strategies for assisting people experiencing mental health crisis.

We developed a simple screening tool based on questions from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Test which analyzes personality traits to determine if a individual might have mental health issues. Individuals with specific mental illness diagnoses tend to answer differently than people without such conditions. The MWAA also provides Mental Health First Aid training, which is a live 8-hour class that provides a mnemonic device to assist someone who may be in the midst of a mental health challenge or be in crisis. It is an international evidenced based program with over 1.5 million trained as mental health first aiders, including EMTs, police officers, teachers and all types of primary care providers. I was lucky enough to be one of the first 100 instructors trained in the United States.

The MWAA resources page contains many tools for facilitating the recognition of mental health symptoms in different stages of life and disease progression. On our prevention page we feature four age cohort specific prevention and early intervention resources describing the key signs and symptoms associated with different stages of mental illnesses. At our annual conference we also provide continuing education credits for primary care providers, nurses, and social workers. This year our “Mental Health Is Physical Health” 2019 conference will be held in November where we are working with Temple University to bring even more CE opportunities to providers.


What would you say are the emerging educational issues for training primary care providers in mental health screening and education?

Primary care providers are often the first point of contact for prevention and early intervention of mental health and substance use disorders. Screenings at the primary care level are vital for the total health of the patient, their families, and society. The challenge for physicians is learning how to ask questions about mental health in a way that will yield accurate and useful information. The MWAA is working to improve public health education and early detection at the onset of symptoms. Primary care screening and treatment during the early stages of illness will provide the best care for the individual, strengthen families, and improve the health and wellness of the entire community.


What would you say seems to be the biggest barrier in mental health care training and education?

The biggest barrier to mental health training is the mindset that the brain and the body are separate entities. Semantics are a major problem –  we have to change the way we talk about mental health. We should no longer place behavioral health separate from physical health. Integrated care is where the medical community should be and integrating care means not continuing to use inappropriate terminology when we know better. MWAA is currently in schools educating the future workers of America that mental health is physical health, what the early signs and symptoms of mental health issues are, and to go to your primary care provider at the first signs of distress. Patients should know they can go to their primary care provider for all medical conditions, including mental health. Providers need to educate themselves on how the brain functions and how to handle mental health conditions properly and accurately.


Is there anything else that you would like to share in general that we have not gone over yet?  

We need to stop thinking about mental illness as somehow different from physical ailments. There are so many wonderful organizations right now working in the space of mental health education, screening and treatment. However, because there is not a unifying organization for all of them to connect, valuable time and money on intervention, research, etc. are not going to these most prevalent issues. We encourage every individual and organization to go to our website AmericanMentalWellness.org and sign on as a “Champion.” It takes unification to break down the barriers to equitable non-discriminatory decision-making and together we can create pressure in public policy that will impact local, state, and national levels.  I believe the MWAA is the unifying organization to begin to make these much needed improvements.


Interview conducted and published at https://www.ncibh.org

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