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Time to Confront the Elephant in the Room

by on March 03, 2020 5:00 AM


Let’s cut right to the chase. I want to talk about a proverbial “elephant in the room” that has been ignored for far too long. This country, and the world for that matter, has a problem when it comes to addressing the growing mental health crisis. It’s about time that we confronted this elephant as almost all of us have been affected either directly or indirectly when mental health issues go untreated.  

Here’s the solution in a nutshell:  Someone just has to care! It is on the rest of us to have the courage to intervene if we have noticed a change in moods and behaviors. It is also on us individually to seek assistance when we recognize changes in our own mental makeup. 

Need some proof of the depth of what is going on in the country?  Look at these numbers:

- 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year.

- 1 in 25 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year.

- 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year.

- 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24.

- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-34.

Well if those statistics don’t shock your system then you have your head in the sand. 

When we see someone in a sling or on crutches, we immediately recognize an injury and, as humans, we feel sympathy and even curiosity about what may have caused the injury. Mental health issues are harder for people to detect and we have this built-in bias that someone with mental health issues is somehow just weak and looking for an excuse. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Jana Marie Foundation was created to address these very issues in our local community and in Centre County as well as surrounding counties including Huntingdon, Mifflin, Juniata, and parts of Blair County.  Take time as soon as you finish this column to look at their website at

According to their website, “The Jana Marie Foundation envisions communities working together to knock down walls and transform emotional distress into resilience and hope.”

I was asked to speak at a Jana Marie Foundation “Mokita Dialogues” event this past fall at Juniper Village by long-time friend David Pencek. What the heck was a Mokita Dialogue, I wondered?  As noted on the foundation’s website, a "Mokita" is “a known truth that is left unspoken.” These events combine art, poetry, and community dialogues to address topics like poverty, suicide, disabilities, and other "elephants in the room." 

There was literally an elephant in the room in the form of a piece of art that symbolizes all the issues that people know exist but fail to address.

David introduced me to an amazing young lady named Marisa Vicere. Marisa founded the foundation in honor of her sister, Jana Marie Vicere, who died from suicide in 2011 after years of battling depression. The foundation is “dedicated to Jana Marie’s commitment to helping others and to her love of creative expression and the arts.”  I did not know Jana Marie and only learned of her short, but amazing journey from Marisa and her father, Al Vicere, who I once worked with in the Smeal College of Business.

My time speaking with Marisa and Al and at the October event really struck a chord with me and I made a commitment to get involved and to make a difference in people’s lives. I have seen the devastating effects of untreated mental health issues with friends and family and believe this is a calling I cannot ignore. 

Marisa explained that the foundation has a three-tiered approach to breaking down barriers, ending the silence, and addressing the elephant in the room: 

“We help people to grow self-confidence and find their voice. We educate parents, teachers and adults on the subject of mental health awareness and suicide prevention. We raise awareness in the community.”

For those of you reading this column who are suffering from mental health challenges or have family or friends who are, please act. There is help! You just need to ask. No one has to go it alone. Don’t try to be an amateur psychologist or therapist. Find the courage to get help if you know you need it or encourage that person in your life to seek assistance if they need it. There are solutions out there. It’s finding the right one for the individual and the Jana Marie staff can help.

We all know people who have dealt with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts and far too many of us know people who have died by suicide. No one likes to talk about it. It takes courage to ask for help and it takes courage to intervene when you suspect that things just aren’t right with a family member, a friend or a colleague at work.

The old school “just suck it up” or “just tough it out” is not effective. Yes, there are times when people need to be more resilient and show more grit. I am not naive and realize that there are those who are looking for excuses.  Those individuals need to do some soul searching and figure out if they really have an illness or they are looking for sympathy. These folks actually add to the challenges associated with mental health as they perpetuate the myth that it isn’t as serious as research has proven.

For a significant percentage of the population there are mitigating factors.  Some simply have chemical imbalances that they cannot control themselves and may not even realize that they have issues. Others will not admit there are issues or consciously choose to be stubborn. Ego gets in the way. 

Seek professional help when you have seen evidence of someone just not being themselves. Look for signs, be observant and be vigilant. You just never know when you might be able to help someone to get their life back on track and even save a life. 

The Jana Marie Foundation’s Annual Dinner and Silent Auction: “A Night to Remember, A Cause to Believe In,” is right around the corner on Friday, March 20 fro 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are just $50 a person. Visit

This year’s theme, “Shine Brightly and Boldly,” will use the power of art, music and movement to celebrate the present moment and remind us to continue to shine. I hope you will consider joining other community members and staff to support the Foundation’s work to promote mental and emotional wellness through dialogue and creative expression.

The schedule of events on March 20:

5:30pm: Experience Jana Marie Foundation & Cocktail Hour with Cash Bar

6:15pm: Buffet Dinner

7:15pm: Shine Brightly and Boldly Program

A silent auction will be available throughout the evening. The event will highlight the Jana Marie Foundation’s story through moving, powerful, and inspirational performances by The Philosophy of Hope Band, poet Seveta Gallu and performer Dmitry Myers.

You can learn more about Jana Marie Foundation activities here. Get out your calendars or open your app on your phone and place reminders about these events on your devices and paper calendars.  The second annual “Philosophy of Hope Concert” is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 12. May is recognized as Mental Health month but you don’t have to wait that long to be a difference maker in someone’s life.

Now you have a better idea of the elephant in the room. Will you take the next steps and support the foundation? Someone’s life may depend on it.

For more information on how you can support the Jana Marie Foundation call 814-954-5920.


Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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