Woman raising arms with confidence
Mental or emotional problems are the fourth leading cause of disability in the United States.1 Most people with mental illness can see real improvements with the right treatment. Some mental illnesses are even preventable. Unfortunately, access to services is a big problem. Adding to that, we are often afraid of people with mental illness because of stereotypes shown in the news. A general lack of information, especially when it comes to treatment and recovery, also plays into this fear.
Uncovering Mental Illness
Last spring, I had saw a presentation called “In Our Own Voice” by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Local NAMI chapters run this program in their communities, often at high schools and colleges. Each presentation is led by two people in recovery from a serious mental illness. They aim to reduce the fear and stigma linked to mental illness by sharing their experience.
“In Our Own Voice” is broken up into five segments:
- Dark days (the hardest part of their struggle with mental illness)
- Acceptance (how they learned to accept their mental illness as an important step on their path to recovery)
- Treatment (the specific treatment plans that have worked for them)
- Coping Strategies (strategies that have helped them achieve and maintain mental wellness)
- Successes, hopes, and dreams (reflections on success and goals for the future)
Each segment starts with a video clip of several people with mental illness telling their stories. NAMI presenters pause the video in between each segment and share their own stories.
“In Our Own Voice” was an eye-opening and uplifting presentation. I noticed that everyone had a unique story, but there were many common themes. For example, most had a hard time accepting their illness. It was also really hard for them to find the right providers, medications or therapies. Finding the right plan often took years of trying doctors and treatments that didn’t work. Some struggled with family relationships and lost those relationships altogether. Many found the unconditional love of a pet to be really valuable. Everyone had successes to share and hope for the future.
I felt that the program empowered the audience with new perspective. We also had the rare opportunity of being able to ask any questions we had about mental illness in a setting where this was encouraged and expected. It was clear that the presentation also empowers the NAMI presenters because they know that they are making a difference by sharing their stories. As awareness spreads, hopefully this will lead to better access to services and more people can live in recovery.
More information about the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the “In Our Own Voice” program.
1 Brault, M. Americans with disabilities: 2005, current population reports, P70-117, Washington, DC: US Census Bureau; 2008.
Mental illness knows no prejudice. It does not recognize gender or age. It does not recognize wealth, poverty or fame. It does not recognize social status, race, or religion. Nor does it recognize ignorance or denial. Mental illness is a powerful thing. It lives and grows; it affects anyone it chooses. It has no limits or boundaries.
We must look at mental illness analytically, and not as this source of “evil” everyone keeps talking about. We need to look at the root cause of terrible acts, not just the means to the end.
In regard to acts of violence, society continues to look at reactive measures, such as random forms of gun control (i.e. banning high capacity magazines and assault type rifles), and increased jail sentences. I’m not suggesting these aspects shouldn’t be addressed. They are contributing factors and require a realistic focus. But, they are not the answer in matters such as these.
We need to get ahead of these acts, not behind them. We need to be proactive and adopt a complete, multi-dimensional approach in addressing the root causes behind these perverse acts. Most notable are the tragedies involving gun violence, which tend to be enlarged by the media. But let’s not forget the incidents of NFL players who have fallen victim, or the celebrities who have lost their battles with the day-to-day struggles of these same illnesses. I can go on and on. I think you get the point. Although there are many differences between these acts, they all have one common factor underlying the root cause…mental illness.
Experience as a Guide
I have worked in the mental health field for a number of years now. I have seen the effects of mental illness on human beings. I have seen the repeated cycle it tends to take, and how the victims of these illnesses often become the offenders. This chain must be broken in order to stop this violence. Early intervention and a multi-disciplined approach are the keys.
Unfortunately, the mental health system in this country does not adequately address this issue. We disregard it. Funding is not given to sufficiently address these matters. They have fallen by the wayside. We have closed institutions and sent mentally ill people to the streets. We mainstreamed affected children into regular classrooms and just labeled them “problematic”.
We continuously place a stigma on mental illness. This makes it difficult for social acceptance, causing it to repress and eventually resurface in different forms. We need to think at a higher level as a society. Blaming such events on poor societal control is not prudent. Once again, dig a bit deeper. Americans work twice as much as other countries. Yet we have far less time away from work (major stressor) as other countries allow. Perhaps this might have an effect on mental health in America?
Where do we go from here?
Please know I am not attempting to justify or minimize these acts. I am a father, a husband, and human service worker. I too struggle to understand these tragedies. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain caused in these situations for the victims, families, and the offenders. They certainly need support in many ways. I pray they will find peace and eventually heal. I have faith in the resilience of the human spirit.
Mental illness is not a choice, just as addiction and sexual orientation are not. It chooses you. It is not a wonder. It is real. We must address it as a society and as a whole. I encourage you to find ways to accept and support mental health issues in our communities. We must advocate for these issues at all levels within our government. We must work together to ensure adequate resources are made available to address this deficit and encourage further research. We must get at the root of the cause before a spark ignites it.
Lastly, as human beings, we must also demonstrate compassion, support, and tolerance towards each other, and have faith we will prevail. Just as mental illness knows no prejudice, neither does mental health.
For more information, visit:
Improving Mental Health and Addressing Mental Illness
National Institute of Mental Health