Dr. Drew Pinsky, center, greets social workers Brigitte Khani, left, and Sherry Gaba at the Voice Awards in Los Angeles in August. Gaba did behind-the-scenes counseling for Pinsky’s “Celebrity Rehab” on VH1.
Social worker Henry Acosta has probably received dozens of awards for his mental health outreach efforts in the Hispanic community.
However, the Voice Award that Acosta received on Aug. 22 in Los Angeles from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is his first award for reaching out to others despite battling a mental illness himself.
Acosta, MSW, LSW, is executive director of the National Resource Center for Hispanic Mental Health in Mercerville, N.J. Yet he suffered from depression for years and attempted suicide at age 16.
Acosta hid his depression at first, afraid it would hurt his credibility. But he discovered that having a mental illness helped him do his job better and being open about it gave him better rapport with clients.
“Being a good social worker is the ability to have empathy,” said Acosta, who earned a master’s degree in social work in administration, planning and policy with children and families from Rutgers University in New Jersey.
“Having a mental illness and knowing what it is like to get restrained against your will, to get medication and have side effects … I think I’m a little bit more patient and understanding because I have been in those shoes before,” he said.
The Voice Awards recognize consumer and peer leaders and the entertainment industry for increasing public understanding and acceptance of people with mental health and/or substance abuse disorders. This year’s ceremony was held at the Paramount Studios in Hollywood.
SAMHSA holds the event with its partners, including NASW, the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors and the American Psychological Association.
This year’s Voice Awards put special emphasis on athletes who are overcoming mental health or substance abuse issues and are involved in community programs that help others.
They included women’s professional basketball player Chamique Holdsclaw, who suffered from depression; Los Angeles Lakers forward Metta World Peace (formerly known as Ron Artest), who struggled with alcoholism and anger issues; Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder; and former Boston Celtic basketball player Chris Herren, who is a recovering heroin addict.
Other Voice Awards recipients included episodes of Fox Television’s “Glee”; Showtime’s “Homeland”; and Shonda Rhimes, creator, executive producer and head writer of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Scandal.”
NASW Senior Public Relations Specialist Greg Wright represented the association at the event.
NASW guests were social worker and author Sherry Gaba, who provided behind-the-scenes counseling on VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab”; Los Angeles social worker and life coach Brigitte Khani, MSW; and filmmakers Harry Gantz and Devon Terrill.
Gantz and Terrill are working on the documentary “American Winter,” which looks at the plight of Portland, Ore., residents struggling economically in the wake of the Great Recession.
The documentary includes footage of social workers who operate 211 call lines that help people obtain a variety of services, including groceries from food banks, help paying utilities and emergency shelter.
There were many Hollywood writers and directors in the audience, and Acosta said it was an excellent opportunity to give suggestions on how to better portray mental illness and substance abuse issues on television and in movies.
During a panel discussion during the awards show, Acosta said his ideal television show would feature a superhero family, like “The Incredibles,” where each person is battling a mental health or substance abuse issue but still managing to save the world from evil.
Acosta said his panel was well received, and the day after the award show he got an email from a public relations professional who asked his opinion about an upcoming movie that included mental illness in its storyline.
Although portrayals of mental illness and substance abuse have improved in the English-speaking entertainment industry, Acosta said much work needs to be done in the Hispanic community, including Spanish language films, soap operas and television programs.
“It’s going to take the media and a public education campaign,” he said. “It’s going to take a whole host of stakeholders to make a change.”