In light of the Newtown Massacre there are many issues clamoring for our attention. Gun control is certainly one of them, and we simply can no longer tolerate the unreasonable argument that any private citizen needs an assault rifle of any kind for any reason. Violence prevention and reduction is another issue, and you will be hearing more from me on these and other issues in the near future. Today, however, I would like to address the topic of mental illness, the stigma it bears in western culture, the disparity in treatment for mental illness versus other illnesses, and the role the insurance companies and government plays in ensuring that mental health treatment is difficult to get and even harder to pay for.
More than on in four Americans, twenty-six percent, over the age of eighteen has a mental illness. The actual number is most likely higher because of the stigma our society places on mental illness. The truth is that mental illness is an illness in the same way that anything you might see your primary care doctor about is an illness. Mental illness is not the result of weakness, lack of faith, poor character, laziness, or anything else. Mental illness is a brain dis-ease, and we need to recognize that truth. You cannot will your way to recovery from mental illness any more than you can will your way to recovery from pneumonia. Religious leaders who decry psychologists, psychiatrists, and/or therapy as work of the (non-existent) devil are nothing short of irresponsible and need to be called to account for their professional malpractice. There are people suffering and, yes, dying in this country – sometimes tragically killing others – who would have benefited from mental health care but didn’t seek it out because their religious leader told them treatment was wrong. I believe those leaders are criminally negligent and should be prosecuted.
You see, mentally ill people do not look like the man at the right, although he could use some hygiene and a visit to the dentist. Mentally ill people look no different that you and I. The vast majority of them are not identifiable by external appearance. If you doubt that, consider that if there are twenty people working in your office the statistics indicate that five of them suffer from a mental illness. Can you pick them out? Probably not, just as you can’t pick out the mentally ill people in your family – and I promise you they are there!
Health insurance is no guarantee that you will be able to access the mental health care you need, especially since most insurance companies cap mental health benefits at a very low dollar amount, often under ten thousand dollars per year. What’s more should you be hospitalized for depression, for example, and need to have a medical test that test is deducted from your mental health benefits. That doesn’t work both ways, however. If you are hospitalized for a hernia and a psychiatric consultation is ordered, that benefit will come from your mental health benefits. The deck is stacked against you, and the only one who wins is the insurance industry. The de-institutionalization movement in the early 1990s only made things worse for those unable to care for themselves and further reduced access to adequate care for the mentally ill.
The truth is that many mental health patients suffer in silence, afraid to speak out or ask for help from friends and family because of the stigma and ignorance around mental health. Many good people have attempted to increase awareness, and some progress has been made. That being said, you didn’t have to look for long at the comments made on stories posted on the Internet about the Newtown shootings before you found complete ignorance and lack of compassion for the mentally ill. Unfortunately, the comments went beyond ignorance to hate-filled vitriol and revealed the abject stupidity of their author.
When I was first diagnosed with a mental illness in 1991 it was a tremendous relief because I finally had a way of understanding my struggles while at the same time entering into treatment in the hope of living a full life. It was liberation to feel the clouds of darkness that had been present my whole like begin to lift. It was suck a relief when the waves of fear and the certain knowledge of imminent doom and death finally subsided. I will be writing and speaking about mental illness very openly over the coming year because I believe that to fight the stigma we need people to come forward who are vital members of society, people the ignorant would never dream have a mental illness, and be open and honest about the vast majority of mentally ill – we are people just like you and your neighbors. In fact, among you and your neighbors the odds are there is a mentally ill person or two.
It’s time to grow up.