During the month of May, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), stresses the need to de-stigmatize mental illness. They urge us to provide support for those who are suffering, to educate the public at large, and to advocate for equal care. As stated by NAMI: “We believe that these issues are important to address all year round, but highlighting them during May provides a time for people to come together and display compassion and strength for those working to improve the lives of all Americans whose lives are affected by mental health conditions.”
Yet, despite the fact that mental illness has been with us since the beginning of time, this time, in the 21st century, when those in positions to allocate sufficient funding for the mentally ill vote against doing so, it reflects a moral compass that ignores some of our deepest values.
What continues to astound me is the fact that while early detection and treatment is always stressed when referring to physical illnesses, the same is not applied to mental illness. The stigma of mental illness still exists today, silencing those who are suffering as well as those who are witness to it.
Scientific progress is helping us to better understand the brain. The discovery of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications has increased the number of treatment options and made them all far more accessible than in the 1940s and 50s when I was growing up witnessing my mentally ill mother’s “breaks” with reality. She was treated only with SHOCK treatments then, and the effects of those treatments – mainly her immediate loss of memory and seeming inability to recognize me – rattled me to my core. Yet, even with the advances that have been made in the 60 years since then, stigma, misinformation, and a lack of funding continues to perpetuate dysfunction in families affected by the illness of a loved one. Too often, proper treatment can’t easily be found or when found can’t be afforded. Worse still is when symptoms, however obvious, are ignored for too long, and by the time treatment is sought, it’s too late.
Read any daily newspaper, listen to the radio or watch TV, and you can’t help but recognize the crisis facing us. It’s of epidemic proportions and includes the incredible increase in teen suicides, the numbers of untreated patients who are incarcerated, and the growing numbers of vulnerable young American adults suckered into all sorts of terrorist allegiances. Yet, all too often, the public at large remains ignorant and consequently powerless to alter or to halt any of these crises.
Many people, unfortunately, assume that they are capable of handling disturbing and potentially life-threatening problems on their own. Yet, that’s the one thing that none of us can afford to do. Call it denial, call it paralysis to take action. It doesn’t matter what label is used. What matters is that we cannot allow emotional cancers to grow untreated. We cannot ignore warning signs and pretend that by ignoring them everything will simply “go away.” We must educate ourselves or allow others to educate us. It’s always easier to think – especially when children are at risk – that abnormal behaviors are nothing more than a passing phase that will simply heal with time. In a very small percentage of cases that is true. Yet, it is still wiser to err on the side of having an evaluation by a trained clinician, whether our concern is about a child, an adolescent or an adult.
In this election cycle economic worries and national security often dominate the rhetoric. But what about the attention given to mental health? It only makes headlines when there’s a mass shooting or when a candidate wants to score points regarding gun control, or address the very real heroin epidemic. The same is true for the lack of attention paid to our war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and in need of family counseling. There is talk but seldom any guaranteed commitment to action and funding.
Problems of the mentally ill are prevalent at all times, affecting the rich, the poor, the young or the old of every race and religion. No one is exempt from an assault. Every ailing person who goes untreated affects the fabric of our entire society, and though it is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans are affected by a mental health condition and so many more are impacted through friends or family members, mental health issues are seldom addressed as a major priority.
Each of us has the potential to alter and even reverse destructive patterns of behavior. With the exception, perhaps, of sex offenders, mental illnesses are treatable, especially when diagnosed and treated early. Some people need and benefit from only brief treatment and others may need to be stabilized throughout their lives; but, first and foremost, we must all know how to identify signs and symptoms and then be able to recognize when help is needed.
Though Mental Health Month serves to highlight the need to make mental health a priority, we should always honor those who seek help to live healthier, productive lives, learning how to cope with life’s challenges. No one should feel the need to hide or feel shamed by his or her genetic wiring. Getting help to improve whatever predispositions may have been inherited or developed is something each of us deserves.
Should you or someone you know need help, seek a referral from a trusted physician, a person you know who has benefitted from being treated by a particular practitioner, or visit a mental health clinic or agency in your local area that has a good reputation. Call for a consultation. Interview whoever is interviewing you and remember that therapy is only as good as the clinician who will treat you and the relationship of trust that you’re able to develop. A therapist can offer tools that assist people in living productive lives with or without the added assistance of medication when indicated, and is what helps to avert a downward spiral of behavior.
In addition to the need for professionals to better educate the public at large, we can all do something to help curb this epidemic which, in the end, is costing the lives of too many people and affecting the lives of too many others.
- Work within your community to educate others by replacing stigma with facts. Most people, for instance, (aided by the media’s mis-information) do not know that the mentally ill are not responsible for most crimes. In fact, they are much more likely to harm themselves than to harm others.
- Vote for politicians who have a proven record of supporting research and who don’t simply talk the talk but, at very least, promise to increase funding for research and increase the number of treatment facilities where early detection and intervention can only help to avoid future tragedies
We cannot afford to turn our backs and pretend that mental illnesses do not exist. Instead of remaining silent and thereby adding to the problem, we must find ways to be a part of the solution by demanding that facilities, physicians, and therapists are available to those in need.
Talk therapy for anyone who has been traumatized is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Psychic scars are only healed when patients are able to communicate their story and gain validation in order to relieve their anxiety and fears, no matter what the circumstance of their trauma.
I’m here to testify that gaining the help of talk-therapy allowed me to move through and beyond the wounds of trauma. That is something that medication alone can never do. I know this to be true not only for myself but for the countless number of people whom I’ve treated in more than 30 years of practice. With so much stress in today’s world, we cannot afford to bury our heads. The cost of doing so will ultimately destroy even the healthy and the strong . . . and what then?
Along with NAMI and all who advocate for mental health, let us take whatever actions we are able to and take them now!