We Need Better Mental Healthcare Systems

We Need Better Mental Healthcare Systems

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US and it is preventable when mental healthcare is provided.

One out of every five adults experience some form of mental health illness, with 1 in 25 adults experiencing a serious Mental Health Illness. More than 17% of our youth experience mental health disorders and 19% of all people have anxiety disorders. This is a huge portion of our population. Yet many people with mental health illnesses are marginalized, shamed and ignored. We can do better.

Too often in our society individuals are criticized for their mental health illness, as though they brought it on themselves. There is a lack of understanding that mental health illness, just like any illness, must be treated, and just like any other illness, it can be either chronic or acute. 

For some people their mental health illness is a chronic condition, needing constant monitoring and treatment, just like a person with diabetes must monitor and control their disease. Other people experience episodic mental health illness. They may face several periods of acute ill health or just one mental health crisis in their lifetime, similar to someone facing one or more bouts of cancer. People experiencing both types of mental health illness deserve to receive the treatment they need with dignity. 

Unfortunately we have failed to do this over and over again in our society. Instead of viewing mental health illnesses in a normalized, practical manner, people often act with fear and superstition towards individuals with mental health illnesses, sometimes treating them as though they are immoral or bad. This leads many people experiencing mental health concerns to hide their illness and to feel ashamed.

I understand how important mental health is and how many people experience disruption to their lives because of mental health concerns. More importantly, I am angered that tens of thousands of people never receive treatment because their illness is considered to be a moral failing. This is a terrible waste of potential and life. Even worse are the tens of thousands of suicide deaths caused by untreated mental health illness. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US! It affects us all, although middle aged males are more susceptible as well as the group least likely to seek help for their depression. This is endlessly sad for our society because we have the knowledge to prevent these deaths. All we have to do is recognize mental health as an important part of our overall physical health.

This is why I fight for affordable, accessible metal healthcare for all our communities. Right now this is not the reality. We are desperately short of mental health facilities statewide. It is time we change this and the prevailing attitude that mental health illness is a personal failing. Read on to learn a little more of the history behind mental health illness treatment and how we have failed to provide adequate care.

Historical Treatment of People with Mental Health Illnesses

In early human history, people with mental health illnesses were often considered to be possessed, cast as witches or treated as animals (the ill treatment of animals is a whole other story). Most people with severe mental health issues were discarded, left to manage on their own or killed outright. Hippocrates, in 400 BCE, was the first to suggest that people with mental health illnesses might be suffering from a treatable illness, although this did little to change how people with mental health illnesses were treated for centuries.  

The first asylums for people with mental health illnesses were created in about the 8th century by Muslim Arabs. In the 1600s Europeans began chaining or imprisoning people with mental illnesses in dungeons. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1700s that people even began to question these practices. 

In the US in the 1800s people with mental health illnesses were often incarcerated or put into asylums where they were left unclothed, in darkness, with no heat or bathroom, sometimes chained to the wall. Dorothy Dix pioneered reform of these facilitates, slowly turning them from dark, dank prisons to custodial care units, although they were still overcrowded and did little to help the people placed in their care. When someone with a mental health illness did receive treatment it might include electro shock, malaria and diabetes treatments or lobotomy. Many of those treatments have since been proven to be ineffective, but at the time very little was understood about mental illnesses. The first scientific studies designed to understand mental health illness were conducted by Emil Kraepin in the late 1800s.

It is important to realize that these facilities were not just places for people facing chronic, severe mental health illnesses. People who experienced short term, acute mental health crises were also placed in them and often had a hard time securing release. In the 20th century Clifford Beers released an autobiography of the inhumane treatment he received at a Connecticut hospital and this spearheaded the founding of the National Mental Health Association, later called Mental Health America. In 1946 Harry Truman put in place the National Mental Health Act which formalized the study of mental illnesses and created the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

In the mid 1950s hospitalization of people with mental health illnesses peaked at 560,000 people, but a huge movement to deinstitutionalize people dropped this number down to 180,000 by 1980. Unfortunately this also led to an increase in homelessness in people with mental health illnesses. Even today we still haven’t figured out how to help people with severe mental health illnesses and we continue to see large numbers of people with these illnesses being  incarcerated or homeless. In all, 37% of adults incarcerated in the state and federal prison system have a diagnosed mental illness; 70.4% of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosed mental illness and up to 25% of the people who are homeless.

An advocacy group, the National Alliance for Mental Illness (Nami), which started in the 1980s, continues to fight for the rights of people with mental health illnesses and to break down the stigma that goes with having a mental health illness. It is time for us to recognize that individuals have a right to healthcare, including mental healthcare, our inability to effectively treat people with mental health illnesses cost our world economy a trillion dollars a year and ruins countless lives.

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