We can’t help people with mental illness until we destigmatize it
By: Carol Glazer, President, National Organization on Disability
Throughout history society has struggled with how to treat those with mental illness. There have been short, staccato measures of time where we have made strides, but for the most part, we have ignored the issue, swept it away with flip reasoning that much of mental illness is caused or exacerbated by personal shortcomings.
I know personally what it is like to struggle with mental illness: post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression to be exact. In the past I faced the difficulties of finding the right diagnosis and then the proper treatment.
Unfortunately COVID only worsened the impact for many people. Behind their face masks, many people have silently strained with the effects of mental health conditions during the pandemic. Professionals say they worry about how great the problem may be because of isolation, losses of friends and loved ones to the illness, job insecurity and other ways lives have been upended.
According to Mental Health America (MHA), nearly 20 percent, or 50 million US adults, live with mental illness. Sadly, 56 percent of that group, or 27 million people, do not receive treatment.
Now more than ever we need a national commitment to community supports, both for early diagnosis and treatment, as well as ongoing recovery supports. Policymakers can prioritize funding and work to increase access to services through innovative and evolving models of care.
We can learn a lot from the past. We have gone from “madhouses” that housed inhabitants in cages, to reforms creating slightly more humane state hospitals in the late 1800. Then in the 1960s community mental health centers were to support individuals in their homes and communities enabling massive deinstitutionalization. Yet only half of the proposed community mental health centers intended to support individuals who transitioned back to communities were ever built. Leaving many individuals facing homelessness or incarceration.
This trend continues to this day, as individuals with a serious mental illness are more likely to be imprisoned, experience homelessness, and struggle to find consistent and adequate treatment. Across the country, individuals with severe mental illness are three times more likely to be in a prison than in a mental health facility, and 40 percent will spend some time in their lives in jail.
In recent years, social justice complaints about law enforcement have intersected with people of color with a mental health condition being shot and killed by police officers. We need better training for officers, and we need to include crisis mental health professionals with law enforcement in establishing community response teams.
It is important for businesses to be involved and to be champions in hiring individuals with mental health conditions and in providing accommodations and supports. Many employees are struggling with mental illness, certainly the numbers have increased during the last two years. As businesses decide to bring people back to the office, some employees will have difficulty adjusting as they figure out how to juggle expectations at home and in the office.
Despite this reality, less than 5% of company employee assistance programs focus on mental illness. This must change. Employees need to know they can get help and trust their managers. They must be assured no stigma exists in their workplace that would stop them from speaking up.
NOD has been saying for far too long that unless employees are able to self-identify at work that they have a mental health condition, they may not get the outside help they need and the inside accommodations and empathy they deserve.
Cost of treatment has become inexpensive thanks to medications and other therapies, but the price tag of ignoring the problem is enormous. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), mental illness accounts for $193.2 billion in lost earnings and 217 million lost workdays annually, as well as dramatic reductions in on-the-job productivity.
Businesses and policymakers can help end this problem. It starts with being able to ask someone who is having a difficult time if they are okay. It ends with a national conversation that drastically changes the lens we look through when we make decisions on national mental health policies impacting funding and availability of services as well as housing, transportation, and employments.
It’s time for us to change history and finally say we understand mental illness is something that deserves full compassion with no stigma attached. Having a mental illness shouldn’t mean a fatal encounter with police, or living on the streets, or being incarcerated. Someone should not need an abundance of courage to talk about their mental health in their work place. It is part of who many of us are and we shouldn’t need to remain silent about it anymore.