Every morning, I wake up to an inbox with messages like this:
“I just read your piece. It rang true to me in every way. My son is 10 years old and has been in 12 different schools, four behavioral centers and continues to get worse. He talks openly about how he’s going to kill us all. He hides knives in his room, attacks, steals and screams profanity.”
“I’ve been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, bipolar and I’m recovering from drug/alcohol addictions. I’ve never been able to see a quality therapist or psychologist. The one time I found one I liked, I had to stop going because my insurance changed. The mental health care system in this country is appalling.”
“I’ve experienced aspects of what you’re writing about with a sibling who has bipolar. In fact, she’s been in ICU for the past two weeks. My other sister and I continually are searching for how to best care for her.”
“I never know how to tell people how scared I am. Right now I feel in control with medication, but I’m terrified. What happens if my meds stop working and I can’t control myself?”
And then, as I’m searching the Internet for real solutions to help my friends, I find lists about how to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Now, I’m all for ending stigma — especially the self-stigma that keeps parents from asking for help or consumers from feeling OK about their medical treatment. As an example, I just had a conversation with a friend who has bipolar disorder. She admitted she felt bad about taking medication to manage her condition.
“But when I don’t take my meds, I don’t feel like me,” she said. “Plus, my life starts to fall apart. I like this me, the ‘me’ that’s in school, working, making a better life for myself. But I feel like I should be able to manage this on my own, without meds.”
My jaw dropped. I have hypothyroidism. I’ve never once felt guilty for taking my daily thyroid medication or thought I ought to manage my thyroid condition “on my own, without meds.”
But the problem is that when we talk about stigma, we use the same suggestions we’ve been hearing for a while now. And the stigma needle, despite all this anti-stigma talk, is not budging.
While the experts talk about mental health, here are my suggestions for-
5 Real Ways to Help People With Mental Illness
1. Make early intervention a top priority.
Pediatricians should all be trained to ask children mental health-related questions. Shocked a child of 5 might express suicidal thoughts? I know hundreds of families who’ve had that experience. The earlier we can get children and families help, the more likely they are to manage the illness and lead productive lives.
New care models developed at Yale University suggest that intervention right after the first episode of psychosis can improve long-term outcomes for young people with schizophrenia.
2. Train more psychiatrists and increase access to care for people with mental illness.
We should be focusing on training a mental health workforce that is competent and capable of delivering evidence-based care to people who need help. The shortage of psychiatrists is a real and growing problem.
3. Stop saying “mental illness” and start saying “illness.”
I’m not suggesting we stop talking about mental health, by the way. But serious mental illness is a physical illness. Mental health is important to everyone, and people with any type of chronic health condition are at greater risk of depression.
But as long as we keep artificially separating serious mental illness and serious physical illness, the stigma will remain and true parity will never be achieved. People will continue to think that mental illness is a choice or a character flaw.
4. Listen to families and provide them with actual support.
In my experience, there’s not enough support in place for families who are affected by mental illness. People who aren’t living this experience seem to think there’s some “cure-all” place we can go to get help for our children. Some of us jokingly refer to this place as “Candyland.”
5. Enough talk; it’s time for action.
We’re getting really good about talking about mental illness. I have no problem telling you I was treated for depression. My son, who has bipolar disorder, has no problem telling strangers in the grocery store checkout line that lithium has completely changed his life. It seems like every day, a celebrity or athlete shares his or her struggle with mental illness. And that’s a good thing.
But what about those whose voices aren’t being heard? What about the people in prison or living on the streets? When will we stop talking and take action to help them? Peer support is a good start, but some of us need more.
I believe assisted outpatient treatment, court-ordered treatment for certain individuals with severe mental illness is one community services program that has enabled people with serious mental illness to live in their communities, stopping the revolving door of incarceration and homelessness.
I’m tired of hearing stories from suffering families. It’s time for the experts to sit down and have a real conversation about mental illness and how we, as a society, can offer people with mental illness help and hope.