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Mental illness is still an issue that causes silent suffering


About one in five American adults—roughly 43.8 million people—will experience some form of mental illness in any given year. The statistics are startling regarding how pervasive the many aspects of mental illness can be.

This week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to spend $800,000 toward new psychiatric and family residency programs at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Watts. The psychiatric programs will focus on outpatient services in the committees of Athens, Compton, Crenshaw, Florence, Hyde Park, Lynwood, Paramount and Watts.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that approximately one in 25 adults (9.8 million people) will experience a serious mental illness this year that substantially interferes with one or more major life activities. About one in five youth ages 13 to 18 years are projected to experience a severe mental disorder at some point in their life. Possibly more stunning is that 16 million Americans have had at least one major depressive episode—including a suicide attempt—in the past year.

There are consequences to a lack of treatment, particularly now that health care coverage nationwide is in flux and traditional financial help for treatment such as Medicare may be drastically reduced, if the Affordable Care Act is ultimately repealed. NAMI reported last year that serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings each year. Mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder (sometimes called neurotic depression), and bipolar disorder, are the third most common causes for hospitalization in the United States for youth and adults aged 18 to 44 years.

One-quarter of homeless are mentally ill

Among the social statistics culled by NAMI are the estimated 26 percent of homeless adults residing in shelters who live each day with a serious mental illness. Forty-six percent of those persons have mental illness combined with any substance abuse disorder such as drug or alcohol addiction. About 20 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners have what is called a “recent history” of a mental illness condition. Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental illness condition, with 20 percent of those young people living each day with a serious mental health illness.

The societal stigma of a mental health disorder, coupled with too few resources and increasing costs to tax payers, may explain why only 41 percent of adults in the United States with a mental health disorder received treatment services in the past year. Among adults with the most serious of these illnesses such as schizophrenia, only 62.9 percent received any type of professional help in the past year said NAMI.

People living with serious mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions. Adults living with serious mental illness tend to die on average 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions. More than one-third of students with a mental health disorder aged 14 to 21 years and older who are served by special education drop out of school, representing the highest drop-out rate of any disability group.

Suicide is usually the final resort for the mentally ill who either refuse or are unable to receive psychiatric help with their lives. It is the 10th leading cause of death in the Untied States, the third leading cause of death for persons aged 10 to 24 years, and the second leading cause of death for persons aged 15 to 24 years. More than 90 percent of children who commit suicide have a mental health condition. Also, each day an estimated 22 American veterans take their lives.

As many as one in five teens suffer

It is not unusual for young people to experience “the blues” or feel “down in the dumps” on occasion. Adolescence is always an unsettling time, with the many physical, emotional and social changes that accompany this stage of life. However, unrealistic academic, social and family expectations can create a strong sense of rejection and can lead to deep disappointment and devolve into depression. To make matters worse, today’s teenagers have to deal with social media, and they see more illusions of what life has to offer—both good and bad—on television, at school, in magazines and especially on the Internet.

Adolescent depression is increasing at an alarming rate. Mental Health America (MHA), an organization that advocates for mental health support, cited recent surveys that indicate that as many as one in five teens may suffer from clinical depression. Depression, they contend, can be difficult to diagnose in teenagers because adults may expect youth to act moody. “It’s only a phase,” or “they’ll grow out of it” are common responses by parents to what they observe as changing behavior patterns in their teenager.

Because adolescents do not always understand or express their feelings well, most are not aware of the symptoms of depression and may not seek help. MHA suggests that parents, teachers and adult guardians should be on the lookout for signs of teenage depression, particularly if they last for more than two weeks. These telltale signs of teenage depression include but are not limited to: Poor performance in school; withdrawal from friends and activities; expressions of sadness and hopelessness; lack of enthusiasm, energy or motivation; anger and rage; poor self-esteem and guilt; substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts and actions.

Historic stigma among African Americans

Sometimes teenagers feel so depressed that they consider taking their lives. Each year, according to the MHA, about 5,000 young people, ages 15 to 25 years, kill themselves. The rate of suicide for this age group has reportedly tripled in the past 50 years, making it the third leading cause of death in adolescents and the second leading cause of death among college-age youth. Studies undertaken by a number of mental health advocacy groups show that suicide attempts among young people may be based on long-standing problems (e.g. bullying, sexual identification) sometimes triggered by a specific event. Suicidal adolescents may view a temporary situation as a permanent condition, therefore feelings of anger and resentment combined with exaggerated guilt can lead to an often impulsive and always tragic act.

Statistics taken from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention indicate that four out of five teenagers who have attempted suicide have given clear warning signs such as: obsession with death, poems and essays that refer to death, dramatic change in personality and appearance; irrational and bizarre behavior; and a severe decline in school performance.

The African American community tends to suffer in silence, when it comes to mental health issues. A study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health revealed that African Americans are up to 20 percent more susceptible to mental illness. One of the barriers they pointed to is the historical mistrust the Black community has of health professionals, and the misdiagnosis of mental illness that is still more prevalent among African Americans. Black women who may suffer physical symptoms related to mental health problems, particularly depression, are often treated for the physical ailment and never the mental problem, according to NAMI.

One of the challenges, according to Dr. Patricia Maryland, President of Healthcare Operations and Chief Operating Officer for Ascension Health, is that African Americans continue to face an imbalance in health insurance coverage. Also, there is a lack of African American mental health professionals who can deliver culturally competent care for illnesses that are often deeply personal and can be the subject of stigmatization.

A survey conducted in 2014 by the American Psychological Association found that less than 2 percent of its members are Black.

“These disparities are unacceptable,” Maryland said. “We must make mental health equity a guiding principle and an utmost priority. Addressing this challenge means promoting and expanding access to affordable mental and behavioral healthcare—care that recognizes the stressors that African Americans experience and provides solutions that are culturally competent.”

The facts and the myths

There are a number of facts and myths surrounding mental health. Initially, most people believe that a mental health issue will not affect them, yet one in five American adults will experience a mental health issue this year. In the most extreme cases, one in 25 Americans are living today with a serious mental health disorder which accounts for the loss of more than 41,000 American lives each year—more than double the number of lives lost to homicide.

It is often believed that children don’t experience mental health problems, but according to NAMI half of all mental health disorders show first signs before a person turns 14 years old. Three-quarters of mental health disorders begin before age 24. Worst of all, less than 20 percent of children and adolescents with diagnosable mental health problems will receive the treatment they need.

Another myth involves the belief that people with mental illness are violent and unpredictable. The fact is that the vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. The organization, MHA, reports that only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to persons living with a serious mental illness. Most people who have a severe mental illness, according to the MHA, are about 10 times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime than the general population.

It is often believed that people with mental health needs—even those who are managing their mental illness—cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job. The truth is that people with mental health problems are just as productive as other employees. When these persons receive effective treatment, it can result in lower total medical costs for a company, increased productivity each day, lower absenteeism, and decreased disability costs.

Treat a loved one with respect

Some people believe that “personality weakness” or certain character flaws contribute to mental health problems. “They can snap out of it at any time” is a common retort by the observer. This belief is corrected by the fact that mental health problems have nothing to do with being lazy or weak, and many people need professional help to get better. Among the aspects that may contribute to mental illness are biological factors including genes, physical illness or brain chemistry. Life experiences such as trauma or a history of abuse may play a significant role. So does a family history of mental health problems, according to

People suffering from mental health problems are often shunned and cast aside in the false belief that there is nothing that can be done for them. In fact, studies demonstrate that people with mental health problems get better and many recover completely. The MHA refers to “recovery” as the process in which people are able to live, work, learn and participate fully in their communities.

Finally, there is the myth held by family and friends that there is nothing they can do to help someone with a mental health problem. In truth, friends and loved ones can make a big difference by reaching out and letting the person know you are available to help. You can help the person access mental health services, share with them the facts—and not myths—about mental health. But never, ever refer to the person as “crazy” and, above all, treat them with respect just as you would anyone else.