We Must Encourage Discussions on Mental Health

Back Commentary Nov 20, 2017 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

We’ve recently had a litany of disasters that have rocked our country — hurricanes, fires and killings have taken many lives, creating a pervasive sense of loss and pain. As people reel from fires in the Napa and Sonoma areas, we’ve barely recovered from the shock of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. When people become victims of such graphic violence, it jolts our collective conscience.

Almost always, the first question we ask about a mass shooting is how it could happen, how anyone in their right mind could act so unconscionably. All too often we have no answers. The brain can be a murky place that hides more secrets than it reveals.

We may never know what was going on in the mind of the Las Vegas shooter, but we cannot deny that mental illness is a bigger part of our everyday lives — in mostly subtle, non-violent ways  — than we may know. Research by the National Council for Community Behavioral Health and the World Health Organization shows that one of every five of us suffers from some form of mental illness. Nationwide in the U.S., that is more than 57 million people. It afflicts people of every age group, with the highest rates for symptoms, such as depression, in young people between the ages of 18 and 25.     

Those same studies show that the problem is equally shared by all ethnic groups, with similar rates among Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic and African Americans.

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As sobering as these statistics are, they still don’t reflect the price we pay as a society for not addressing mental health problems. Some of us may have a “crazy uncle” we keep at a distance, or can point to people wandering our downtown streets in obvious need of mental health treatment. This ubiquitousness may make us feel like it’s not our problem. But, in fact, we are all affected by untreated mental illness, whether we are taxpayers, business owners or a person struggling to help a family member cope.

The WHO estimates that mental illness costs the U.S. economy $80 billion a year, 15 percent of the economic cost from all diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. Forty-nine percent of Medicaid recipients use some of those funds for mental health treatment. Half of jail and state prison inmates require mental health treatment. Two-thirds of homeless adults suffer from mental illness, and the alcoholism and drug dependency it can lead to.

I recently attended a UC Davis lecture and heard Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, a noted psychotherapist, talk about the book he’s authored on his experience with mental illness. His father suffered from it in secret. The family suffered because of the father’s long absences from home, which he and his brothers did not understand. Therapists had advised his parents “not to tell the kids.” His brothers all suffered life-long mental problems as a result.  

To a large degree, there is still a lot of stigma and secrecy associated with mental illness. We change the subject or look the other way. Public discussion has prompted public support for other health problems that were once stigmatized, from HIV to cancer. We honor survivors of cancer with pink ribbons, celebrate the decreasing mortality rate for those living with HIV, and praise patients who have overcome a heart attack.

Research shows that up to 90 percent of people who get mental health treatment can recover or manage their symptoms well enough to function normally, especially if treatment begins sooner, rather than later.

We are taking steps to do that. The UC Davis Behavioral Health Center urges medical doctors to study psychotherapy so they can recognize mental health symptoms and proactively refer patients for treatment. A bill just signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown and sponsored by the Steinberg Institute, created by Sacramento’s current mayor, will help raise funds for primary care doctors to receive training in recognizing the early symptoms of mental illness.    

Contrary to the violence in Las Vegas, Dr. Hinshaw noted that people suffering from mental health disorders are five times more likely to be a victim of violence than the rest of us, either from shootings that result from their bizarre behavior or suicide — which, by the way, claims dramatically more lives than homicide in this country,

The signs of mental illness are visible all around us. The silence about it is, too. But we can help those who suffer from mental illness — and ourselves — by talking about it openly.

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