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The Best Medicine for America’s Mental Health Crisis

The popular—and controversial—Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, focused on teen suicide, and in one episode, showed the life-ending act in horrible, graphic detail.

Some have blamed the show for triggering copycat suicides, but Amy Powell, president of Paramount Television and Digital Entertainment, says those decisions were deliberate and well-considered. The goal, she says, was to spark a conversation.

“Kids and their parents weren’t connecting about this provocative topic, and they felt isolated from each other on both sides,” said Powell speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif. on Monday. “We struck right into the heart of the controversy to say to parents and kids, ‘Talk to each other. Talk to someone.’”

Bernard Tyson, the chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, the integrated health care provider and not-for-profit health plan that serves more than 12 million Americans, agreed that a large part of America’s mental health problem is that we don’t talk about the issue. “Most of us have [a mental health issue], or we’re one degree from it. It’s all around us, but nobody wants to talk about it.”

He points out that in roughly half of suicides—the leading cause of death for young people ages 15-19—individuals never shows any sign they’re thinking about the act.

Tyson has implemented a multi-pronged approach for improving the mental health of Kaiser patients. One of those efforts, which he calls “Find Your Words,” is aimed at combating the persistent stigma around mental health issues and involves “showing people that there is a way to ask for help and to say you have a problem.”

He’s also addressing the long-held disconnect between the way health providers deal with issues of the body and the mind. Mental health problems are often relegated to separate providers where issues are tracked in separate records. “We treat it differently,” he said.

At Kaiser, teams are now taking an integrated approach, working psychiatry and behavioral health services into the primary care practice. Patients get referred to behavioral health specialists for issues like stress and sleep issues just like they might be referred to an orthopedic specialist for knee pain. “You start to treat the brain like an organ. It’s our hope that sooner or later we’ll start talking about mental health as easily as we talk about diabetes and cancer,” Tyson said.

Tyson suggested beyond just speaking about it, we may need to do a better job in selecting and defining the language we use when talking about mental health. (He is troubled by the way in which mental illness is thoughtlessly invoked in every tragedy or “shoot out.”) He suggests we may need to adopt new terms like “brain health” or “mental wellness.”

As for Powell, who is preparing for the third season of 13 Reasons Why, she remains focused on being “responsible in our content creation.” Paramount is working with Netflix to make it possible for viewers to engage immediately with a crisis center if they’re having suicidal thoughts and to get the help they need.