Their Take: Paul Penzone on Getting Personal with Mental Health

by Paul Penzone

Everyone has a mental health story shaped by their own experiences. Perhaps you can pinpoint a moment, a shift – a time when you were struggling.  

I’m sharing a part of my story in hopes of breaking the stigma surrounding mental health. The more we talk about it, the more we normalize it, and more people will feel empowered to get the help they need.   

As a cop in my twenties, I was naïve – thinking I was prepared for any call that came my way because I was trained, and it was just part of the job.  

But nothing could prepare me for the day I got the distress call that a baby had stopped breathing. Upon arrival, we found a toddler. I’ll spare the details but, suffice it to say, he didn’t survive his injuries. I felt unimaginable anger, immense sadness at the senseless loss of life, and was traumatized by what I had witnessed. Without realizing it at the time, it had impacted my mental health, but I ignored and suppressed it. 

Why? There’s a stigma in law enforcement; the mentality is that if you ask for help, you’re probably not strong enough to be in that profession. But the truth is, you can’t be “trained” out of human emotion, nor, I have learned, would I want to be. That’s why one of my first initiatives as Maricopa County Sheriff was establishing a wellness division for our deputies and detention officers. Whether it was work-related or personal trauma, we provided peer and clinical support. 

In my new role at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona (AZ Blue) as vice president and chief community relations officer, I get to build on the work I’ve done to support mental health. At AZ Blue, we’re partnering with nonprofits, funding programs that address mental health, offering Mental Health First Aid training to Arizona businesses and their employees in addition to our own employees, promoting resources like the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, and we’re out in the community every day so we can understand where there are gaps and what we can do to fill them.  

One of the best parts is our work impacts not only Maricopa County but the entire State of Arizona. AZ Blue is committed to focusing on parts of the state where there are major health inequities. Rural areas are often the most vulnerable when it comes to access to healthcare, especially mental healthcare. AZ Blue has made it a priority to add more mental health providers to our network who serve areas where greater access is needed. But we recognize that increasing access to care is only effective if Arizonans feel comfortable and confident enough to seek the help they need.   

Stigma can stand in the way of pursuing mental health care. Many won’t even talk about mental health for fear of shame and judgment. It’s time to change the narrative. Asking for help is a sign of strength and courage – not weakness. That’s something I wish my 20-year-old self had known, and something I aim to champion at AZ Blue. Last year, we launched the Stigma-Free AZ campaign to show our support, and I encourage you to take the pledge online 

I hope my mental health story can inspire even one person to start the conversation about their mental health with family, friends or a medical professional. Your mental health, your emotions, your life matters. I urge you to remember that during this Mental Health Awareness Month, and every month after. 

Take the Stigma-Free AZ pledge here.

Paul Penzone is Vice President & Chief Community Relations Officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona.

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