We as a nation are experiencing the profound anguish and fear of another school shooting. Again mental illness becomes the too-easy target.
For the longest time, I have argued that mental illness and mass shootings are two different subjects.
I was wrong. Mental health belongs in this conversation, but we’re thinking too small.
The truth is: Even if the U.S. were able to eliminate mental illness as a factor, the nation would reduce gun-related crimes by less than 5 percent, according to CDC data. The truth is that people living with mental illness are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.
Another truth: Violence is an infectious disease, and this nation is in the throes of a full-scale epidemic.
I was wrong because this unremitting violence has created a national mental health crisis. Every school shooting exposes more people to trauma, and not just those directly affected. Our first responders? What we demand of them is simply inhuman.
We’re traumatized also by the murder of Chicago Police Cmdr. Paul Bauer, and by the hundreds of acts of violence in this city every week.
Violence doesn’t have to happen near us to affect our mental wellness. NAMI Chicago’s Ending the Silence high school program helps students from around the city who are struggling with real trauma simply because they live here.
One of the hardest things we ask people living with mental illness to do is raise their hands to ask for help. The stigma society places on mental illness is so pervasive and so corrosive that for many the risk is simply too great. With every shooting, they see how society handles mental illness. And what if a person living with mental illness finds the courage to seek help? They’re met with an inadequate system.
The scary reality is that if our mental health system fails when one person raises his or her hand, how can it hope to help the entire country?
The United States needs a moon-shot level effort to bring our mental health system out of the 19th century. As a nation, we have a childlike grasp of the subject. Popular culture prizes wellness and living in the moment, but we still talk in hushed voices about “mental breakdowns.” We expect grade-school kids to know first aid, but commonsense mental health techniques are a mystery to college graduates.
It doesn’t have to be this way. For centuries infectious diseases terrified humanity, until science found the microscopic culprits. For centuries, we spoke in a whisper of the Big C, until immunotherapies and other treatments have given us hope of ending cancer’s terrible grip.
Violence is an infectious disease, and we know it affects us in a physical way. Researchers are learning more daily about brain function and how integral mental health is in physical well-being.
NAMI Chicago’s mission is to improve the quality of life for those whose lives are affected by mental illness. That’s all of us.
This message first appeared in an email to NAMI Chicago’s supporters and is reprinted with permission from Alexa James, MS, LCSW who serves as Executive Director of NAMI Chicago. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CharityLogic and iCarol.
We wanted to share this touching blog by Paul Gionfriddo of Mental Health America, telling the story of his family’s experience with mental illness and homelessness.
By Paul Gionfriddo
There are half a million homeless people with serious mental illnesses in desperate need of help yet underserved or ignored by our health and social-service systems. That number can seem overwhelming, but for me, it’s all about one person: my son Tim.
Tomorrow is Tim’s 30th birthday, and I wish I could spend it with him. But I don’t know where he is, so this year I’ll have to settle for the memories of his childhood birthdays. Tim was diagnosed with schizophrenia over two decades ago, and has been homeless on the streets of San Francisco for the last 10. I am a former state legislator, a former mayor, a CEO of a national organization…and even I couldn’t prevent it. Because people with mental illness become homeless as a result not of bad choices but of bad public policy.
There are many differences between me and Tim…I’m in my 60s, he’s half my age. I’m 5’9”, he can appear towering at 6’ 5”. I’ve got graying hair, his hair is dark. I’m white, he’s black. But all of those difference don’t really matter…the only reason Tim is homeless and I’m not is because he has a mental illness. That’s it. Our mental health system has failed him and countless others, and it’s time to change that.
So I can’t turn back time. I can’t spend his 30th birthday with my son. I will pray as I do every day that he is safe and that one day we can get him the help he so desperately needs. Until then, I’m going to keep fighting just like Tim does every day. I’m going to fight to change our mental health care system, to work to get people the help they need when they need it, and to get this country talking and addressing mental illness before Stage 4. I will continue to fight for Tim and for the millions like him affected by mental and substance use conditions who have not had a voice for far too long.
You can read Paul’s blog here, and also get other information on mental health, mental illness, and other topics on Mental Health America’s website.
People face many barriers on the path to receiving mental health care. Some of the most common are:
Properly recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental illness
Knowing where to go for help
Availability of services
Cost of accessing services
The stigma associated with accessing the service
Stigma continues to be one of the toughest barriers to take down.
Every day people are still made to feel ashamed for having a mental illness in spite of these being legitimate medical issues. We’d never dream of making someone with cancer feel as though they did something to “deserve it.” We couldn’t imagine looking at someone with diabetes and telling them that taking medication everyday to stay healthy wasn’t normal. I can’t comprehend telling someone with a broken leg, “If you put your mind to it you can walk without using crutches.” And yet these are the attitudes that those living with mental illness are still facing every day. Some people still fail to see the medical legitimacy in mental illness, causing many to be too embarrassed or ashamed to seek help.
Courtesy of SAMHSA below are some suggestions for messages to share the helps reduce stigma:
Support People with Mental Illness –
Society needs to understand that people with mental illness are not the “other,” they are our family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. They deserve understanding and support.
Learn More about Prevention –
Behaviors and symptoms that signal the development of a behavioral health condition often manifest two to four years before a disorder is present. Effective prevention and early intervention strategies reduce the impact of mental illness.
Help is Available –
Treatment and mental health services are available and effective. Local crisis lines can be a wonderful source of emotional support and an access point for referrals to professional mental health treatment. If they are in crisis or suicidal, Americans can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Canadians can dial their local crisis centre if they are suicidal or in crisis. Local helplines, crisis lines, and distress centres, or 2-1-1 Information and Referral lines can also be excellent sources of support and referral.
Recovery is Possible –
Most people are able to successfully overcome or manage mental illness, including serious mental illness, with the right treatment and support. Spread the message of recovery.
So during mental illness awareness week, I hope that we’ll all recommit ourselves to educating others about mental illness, and continue to chip away at that stigma. Helplines are on the front lines of this fight. Every day, people who haven’t yet talked to their doctor or a loved one about their symptoms choose to reach out to a helpline. Being greeted with the understanding, knowledge, and validation that helpline workers provide plays a huge role in reassuring someone that it’s okay to seek help.