Ever the voice of reason, Donald Trump wants us to put things in perspective:
"Every time something happens, they don't blame mental illness -- that our mental healthcare is out of whack and all of the other problems…No matter what you do you will always have problems. That's why people are watching the news. There's always going to be problems. There's always going to be horrible things happening. And that's not necessarily politically correct. There will be problems in the world - that's the way it is. I think we can make a big dent with mental health. If we can solve a big chunk of the mental health problem in this country, that would be so fantastic."
The question remains: if our mental healthcare is out of whack, how exactly can we make a big dent with mental health and solve a big chunk of the mental health problem in this country? It would be so fantastic if we did, but “so fantastic” is not a plan. Donald Trump did not mention having a plan. Does anyone have a plan?
We can begin by speaking out. October 4 through October 10 is “National Mental Illness Awareness Week”. Groups like NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) are asking this week for candid conversations, both public and private, about mental illness, and for the elimination of stereotypes and stigma that surround the issue. Here in Missoula, Mayor John Engen has graciously agreed to proclaim this “Mental Illness Awareness Week” in the city; and NAMI Missoula is hosting a number of public events—a movie screening at the Missoula Public Library on Tuesday evening, a presentation Thursday afternoon at Providence St. Patrick Hospital, and a poetry reading Thursday evening at Fact & Fiction.
Sue Abderholden, Executive Director of NAMI Minnesota, notes that “public understanding [of mental illness] is improving. A Harris Poll conducted in August of 2015 found 89 percent of people responding felt that mental health and physical health are equally important. People certainly know more about mental illnesses and the brain than they did 25 years ago.” Sadly, though, the same survey found “that while the public’s understanding of mental illnesses has increased, attitudes towards people with mental illnesses have not changed enough. Mental illnesses and violence continue to be wrongly linked, which affects a number of things, including people seeking treatment early, the ability to finish school or maintain employment and the willingness of communities to support programs to treat and support both children and adults with mental illnesses.” 1
Attitudes in turn affect public policies and access to care—including early intervention and preventive treatment for mental illness; which is to say, the issue is also political. Progress has been made, says Ms. Abderholden:
Key legislation has helped with awareness and inclusion, namely the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996, the Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act, the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, and, most recently, the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which guaranteed healthcare coverage through exchanges.
At the risk of seeming self-serving—I’m not just a member of NAMI Missoula, I’m also on its Board of Directors—I want to encourage people to support their nearest NAMI affiliate, wherever it may be. I also encourage people to support community-based mental health programs, crisis intervention programs, crisis centers, suicide prevention programs, outreach on these issues to schools and to faith organizations, and regular public forums about mental health issues: all of that is at least the beginning of a plan.
Mental illness impacts us all in so many ways. None of us are insulated from it; it is a key factor in social pathologies ranging from homelessness to addiction to poverty to broken families. It prevents people from living the lives they expected to live and from realizing their potential; and it too often turns them, through no fault of their own, into burdens on their loved ones and on society.
I speak from personal experience: mental illness is a matter of life and death.
The following links can be useful:
The national lifeline for suicide prevention and mental health crises is 1-888-273-8255.