Sometimes the most important things to discuss openly can also be the most difficult to talk about. In the case of mental illness, it is clear that as a society we can no longer accept hiding behind our apprehensions and misunderstandings and that we must do better to figure out how to identify those in need of help and then actually help those who seek assistance.
Without going too far down the road, we figure it would not be hyperbolic to suggest that a better understanding of mental health issues among our fellow citizens could save lives. Undoubtedly, among the more than 300 mass shooting incidents that occurred all over this country in 2018 – and already, in 2019, we’ve witnessed more horrific, unprecedented tragedies across the globe – is it foolish to believe that, were some of the perpetrators receiving proper counseling or medication, they might not have gone through with their actions that resulted in injuries or death to multiple other people?
The first step towards a collective improvement is to recognize that mental illness is not some rare phenomenon that is easily discernible. According to NAMI – the National Alliance on Mental Illness – as many as 20 percent of adults and children aged 13-18 have, or will have, some form of mental illness within their lifetime. In total, 43.8 million American adults experience mental illnesses in a given year.
While the common perception of mental illness conjures images of famous films like “A Beautiful Mind” – where a protagonist slowly descends into the madness manifest from their own faulty brain – the reality is that such extreme mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, account for only a small percentage of mental illnesses in the country.
Anxiety disorders top the list, with about 18 percent of adults suffering from some form of anxiety. This is followed by general depression, which about 16 million adults (nearly 7 percent) suffer from. Then comes 6.1 million with bipolar disorder, followed by schizophrenia, which affects about one out of every 100 Americans.
Unless you suffer from one of these illnesses, it is truly difficult to empathize and understand what someone afflicted goes through. There is a good chance you know somebody in your life who suffers from anxiety or depression, but you may never be aware of it. This could be because the person has become efficient at hiding their symptoms – likely scared of facing scrutiny or judgment from those who don’t understand – or because you simply take for granted not having these symptoms yourself.
Take, for instance, something as seemingly simple as going to open a new bank account. For someone without anxiety, this transaction is little more than an inconvenience – a necessary waste of an hour or two in order to continue on with more important things. For a person with anxiety, this task will haunt them for potentially many days leading up to it as they concern themselves with every minute possibility that could go awry. Anxiety forces the sufferer to obsess over worst-case scenarios, regardless of how irrational they know those concerns are.
Other more clinically serious issues, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, can have even more drastic affects on the mind and the body. While there has been progress made into diagnosing these illnesses, we are still far from understanding why they occur, and there is no one magical treatment fit for every individual suffering from these illnesses.
Combine our lack of widespread understanding regarding these maladies with the tendency for those suffering from them to go without treatment, and you have a combustible situation. According to NAMI statistics, half of children aged 8-15 received no mental health services, and 60 percent of adults with a known mental illness went without any mental health treatment the previous year. This could be a result of a lack of sufficient services, insufficient insurance coverage, or societal stigma causing those in need of treatment to go without for fear of being ostracized, or any other number of various reasons.
What can be assured, however, is that a person affected by mental illness cannot simply will themselves into rising above it. These disorders are often caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, and are often genetically predisposed. For many, medication can lead to greatly improved lives. For others, simply taking time to talk with a qualified professional about their symptoms can make a lasting difference.
As a society, we can all do better about being more accepting of those who suffer from mental illnesses within our society. We have made great strides over the decades and centuries, but this does not mean that we have advanced to a point where we’ve emerged victorious.
There are leaders within our communities – like former Warwick Police Chief Col. Stephen McCartney and Kent County Probation and Parole Supervisor Christine Imbriglio, Maureen Gouveia, mental health liaison to the Warwick Police Department and even from our young minds like Warwick’s Pilgrim High School student Victoria St. Jean, featured in Tuesday’s Beacon – who understand that mental illness contributes to many of the overall ills within our society, and that we need to address those challenges head on and with purpose by fostering understanding and providing access to treatment.
We need more of such leadership all across the world – many lives depend on it.