Mental illness: no more secrets, no more deception

Imagine this: Your 15-year-old son becomes seriously ill. Is it cancer or some other life-threatening disease? You whisk him off to the emergency room. Within days, you have updates on Facebook. “Billy is doing much better.” “The medicine is working!” “He’s going to be OK.”
Many of us have experienced that scenario in our lives. But how many of us also experience this similar situation:
Your 15-year-old son becomes seriously ill. He is afraid to leave the house; he suffers severe mood swings and destructive behavior. You chastise him, you take away his computer or gaming system, and you force him into the car to go to school. You say nothing about your daily struggles to friends and family. You make up excuses for missing family gatherings. You are too ashamed to seek help.
When it comes to mental illness, we hide the truth. We don’t share our stories on social media. Who has ever shouted for joy that the new medication is helping your son’s severe anxiety? Or that your daughter finally got approved for residential treatment for her schizophrenia?
Those suffering from mental illness refrain from discussing their problems. Employees fear the loss of their job; individuals fear losing a loved one when the truth is revealed. Patients hesitate to be frank with their doctors.
Those of us spared dealing with mental illness are clueless as how to help a friend or coworker whose life is being turned upside down.
Yet mental illness is all around us.
Depression affects 10 percent of Americans. We are stunned to hear that actor Robin Williams – someone who seemingly had everything – took his own life. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Depression is never normal and always produces needless suffering.”
One in 10 children are affected by depression, anxiety or other mental illness, according to bringchange2mind.org, a national initiative to educate and fight the stigma of mental illness.
Some 25 million Americans have some type of anxiety disorder.
On a national scale, shootings like the one at Sandy Hook in 2012 put mentally ill individuals into the headlines. In those worst cases, we shudder when the evening’s newscasts bring us horrific video of a shooting scene.
But mental health issues touch us in many other ways, every day. Families struggle when dad is unable to hold down a job, or a daughter threatens suicide.
Our workplaces are affected, too. A coworker with mental health issues drains time and hurts morale. Those outbursts shatter the workday, creating a tense and hostile work team.
On a practical note, undiagnosed and untreated mental illness hits us in the pocketbook. Some 30-40 percent of those in our county jails are mentally ill, not criminals, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and many other law enforcement officials from throughout the country will tell you. Their issues consume extensive staffing hours and tax dollars just to maintain and move these people through the system, while hard-core criminals go free.
Our medical system is burdened by mentally ill who cannot or will not seek regular doctor’s care. One out of eight emergency room visits are for mental health issues. Again, we help to pick up the tab through government social services and health care subsidies.
Some new laws have helped. Our state’s sheriffs, with Stanek leading the charge, were successful with legislation that speeds the process for assessing an inmate’s mental state. “Local jails should not be the largest mental health facilities in the state,” Stanek says.
Organizations like NAMI – the National Association on Mental Illness – are actively urging Congress to pass important legislation: The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act and the Strengthening Mental Health in our Communities Act of 2014 should be approved.
The Affordable Care Act says that mental health issues need to be covered and treated the same as physical health ailments, but Medicare and Medicaid still do not pay as much for inpatient treatment for the mentally ill, encouraging private facilities to reduce their mental illness services.
We are blessed in Minnesota to have top-notch health care. We have clinics that specialize in mental health issues, some focusing specifically on young people. Yet we still keep the illnesses, the symptoms and treatment quiet. We are unprepared when illness strikes our own family or friends.
A local campaign, supported by many Minnesota health organizations including the Mayo Clinic and HealthPartners called “Make It OK” (makeitok.org), offers simple ways to start a conversation about mental illness. It urges everyone to stop the silence, and be prepared to react and open up the discussion, not shut it down: “Thanks for opening up to me.” “Do you want to talk about it?” “How can I help?”
The initiative urges everyone to take a pledge to help make it OK to discuss mental illness. One of the key points says, “If we join together, people with mental illnesses will be treated with respect and acceptance. This is how I’ll help remove the silence surrounding mental illness. This is how I will make it OK.”
It is time for everyone to stop hiding mental illness, and start talking. Only when we as a society admit this huge problem exists, will we be able to work together to foster good mental health for all.

An editorial from the ECM Publishers Editorial Board. This newspaper is part of ECM Publishers.

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