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Reducing the Stigma Around Mental Illness

Posted by Lauren DiChiacchio on Jun 10, 2013 1:14:00 PM

mental health, behavioral health, staffing services In the aftermath of the Newtown, CT shooting, Liza Long wrote a blog entitled “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother". She detailed the frustration and fear she lived with every day trying to get help for her son who had not received a specific diagnosis but who exhibited extreme behavioral issues and violent outbursts that included pulling a knife on his own mother.

From her very personal perspective, she wrote “In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it's easy to talk about guns. But it's time to talk about mental illness.” As she sought to get her son treatment, his social worker told her that the only way to get him help was to have him charged with a crime.

“No one wants to send a 13-year-old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle-animal collection to jail," she wrote. "But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken health care system, does not provide us with other options.”

Six Months Later

Last week, six months after the Newtown tragedy, President Obama called for a national conversation about mental health at the National Conference on Mental Health. The conference brought together mental health professionals, politicians, and others to discuss ways to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

In his remarks at the White House, the President noted that most mentally ill people are not violent and that many violent people have no diagnosable mental problem. But mentally ill people are more likely to commit suicide, he said, and “when a condition goes untreated, it can lead to tragedy on a larger scale.  We can do something about stories like this.”

Obama went on to say “that many physical disorders get attention on television, some of them very personal, and yet, we whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions,” he said. “The brain’s a body part, too. We just know less about it.” The President also wanted to highlight provisions of the Affordable Care Act which includes requiring health insurers to cover mental health services as an essential benefit, and a White House initiative aimed at mapping the human brain.

This speech came a month after the President's gun legislation was defeated in the Senate. That legislation, which would have expanded background checks on those who wanted to purchase a gun, included language that would have provided grants to teach “mental health first aid” to emergency workers, teachers and others who might interact with someone struggling with mental illness. This portion of the legislation had strong bipartisan support. There is hope that the legislation will be resurrected and that is where we as part of the Behavioral Community may have some impact.

Reducing the Stigma

I’m not sure that we can reduce the stigma on mental health through legislation, but putting resources towards creating a national conversation as well as enhanced training seems like a great place to start.

The sad fact is one in five Americans suffers from mental illness, so it is all around us. Like any other illness, until people are better educated and there are broader resources for getting quality care, the stigma will remain.

So speak out. Write letters, attend events, and express your discomfort when others make derisive remarks. It can make a big difference in someone’s life. For those of you who work in this community, you know the impact that your work makes on individuals and their families. Even if you are not a mental health professional, you probably know someone who suffers from some type of mental illness, whether its depression or antisocial behavior to more severe types such as bipolar disorder.

Last Friday, another shooting took place in Santa Monica. Six more people are dead and the gunman had a history of mental illness and had been hospitalized. These stories are only going to continue until we decide as a country that mental health is like any other health issue and we need research, money and leaders who are willing to make a stand and make a difference. You can be that difference.

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