A Largely Unaddressed Epidemic

By Laurie Hanson, Esq.

October is Mental Illness Awareness Month, almost an oxymoron. Do you realize that more people in the U.S. have mental illness than any other disability? That a quarter of all adults experience mental illness each year? And that over 50 percent of them will go without the necessary care?

Given its prevalence, mental illness touches us all in some way, yet it probably carries more stigma than any other disability. If someone contracts ALS, for instance, no blame is cast; but if someone has a mental illness, it may be viewed as a sign of personal weakness. Care frequently focuses on the immediate aftermath of a crisis, and the necessary long-term support goes wanting.

Because the cost of addressing the mental health crisis in a meaningful way is often considered prohibitive, it’s helpful to focus on a few of the elements that should be included in a true cost/benefit analysis:

  • It’s been estimated that lost earnings due to serious mental illness total over $193 billion each year. It’s the second most frequent reason for workplace absenteeism.
  • Those with mental illness have a higher rate of homelessness.
  • Individuals with mental illness have a greater likelihood of being jailed.
  • Suicide rates among veterans and baby boomer males have skyrocketed.
  • The emotional and financial stress placed upon families dealing with mental illness can be crippling.
  • Untreated mental illness can erupt into violence, as witnessed by the recent shooting at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard.

Mental illness is just one facet of an individual, yet the full person often remains in shadow, resulting in a devastating loss of human potential. People with serious mental illness are vulnerable to both abuse and exploitation, but since the symptoms of their illness may appear intermittently, many of them lack guardians to monitor their security.

What should be done?

Certainly, there should be widespread public education concerning mental illness. Beyond the need to eradicate prejudice and stereotypes, the general public needs to know how to identify the symptoms of mental illness and how to connect individuals with the services they require. Too often, people have no idea where to turn for help.

Crisis intervention teams, consisting of trained police working with mental health professionals, should be more widespread. Such units, skilled at defusing psychiatric crises and linking those in distress to medical care, have been successfully deployed in many—but not enough—communities. We also need more research on how to evaluate and treat individuals at risk of harming themselves or others.

Mental illness is a disability “hiding in plain sight.” During Mental Illness Awareness Month, we should pause to consider the true cost of continued denial.

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