Mental health: Busting stigma, shame, stereotypes

The Obama administration recently hosted the National Conference on Mental Health in an effort to kick off a national conversation to raise awareness about mental illness and the myriad of treatment options and resources that are currently available. The day-long White House summit on June 3, brought together individuals who have suffered from mental illness, their families, mental-health experts and treatment providers, educators, military veterans, faith leaders, advocates, policymakers and government officials.

The event was perhaps one of the most symbolic steps taken by this administration in improving the care for the 60 million Americans — age 18 and older — experiencing mental-health issues.

“Struggling with a mental illness or caring for someone who does can be isolating,” President Obama said during his opening remarks, acknowledging the continuing social stigma of mental illness.

Today, by any measure, the “Three-S” factor of mental illness — stigma, shame and stereotypes — are still prevalent in our society. Translation: Those who suffer from mental illness are still reluctant to seek treatment. Sadly, when left untreated, the symptoms of mental illness can be life-threatening given that 90 percent of suicides are related to a serious mental illness (depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders), according to Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

In Miami-Dade County, according to the 2013 Community Health Needs Assessment Household Survey conducted by Professional Research Consultants, Inc., and sponsored by the Health Council of South Florida, Florida Department of Health and Health Foundation of South Florida:

• Nearly 13 percent of adults self-reported that their overall mental health (which includes stress, depression and problems with emotions) is “fair to poor” compared to roughly 12 percent of adults across the United States.

• Almost 32 percent of adults self-reported symptoms of chronic depression, compared to more than 26 percent of adults in the United States.

Stopping short of saying that the stigma of mental illness is also a form of discrimination, the president also urged our nation to end the shame and lift the veil of embarrassment associated with mental illness because “the brain is a body part, too — we just know less about it,” he said.

While I agree that there is still much more to learn about the human brain given its unimaginable complexity, our understanding of it has increased dramatically since the “Decade of the Brain” of the 1990s. Today, we know more about the brain than we used to.

I am also encouraged by the Obama administration’s ongoing commitment to further advance our knowledge of mental disorders with the recent launch of the National Institutes of Health’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative on April 2. Hopefully, for the first time in history — using far-more advanced and innovative neuro-imaging technologies — scientists will have the tools that they need to create a new dynamic image of the brain that can eventually lead us to the discovery of new treatments.

Despite these exciting scientific advances, our mundane challenges with mental illness remain.

NIMH estimates that one in five Americans suffer from mental illness, but nearly half of those with serious mental illness do not seek treatment. The direct and indirect economic costs of mental illness to our society are estimated at more than $193 billion annually — and it is the most common cause of disability. The World Health Organization estimates that behavioral health disorders, such as major depression, will be the leading cause of global disability for women and children by the year 2020.

Clearly, mental health is a public health issue for our community.

Jackson Behavioral Health Hospital — a Jackson Health System facility and member of the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems — is committed to leading and continuing this national dialogue on mental health.

President Obama has reminded us all that with mental illness, “recovery is possible and help is available.” Let us follow that lead.

Let’s openly discuss mental health and open the door to additional treatment by keeping mental illness out of the shadows.

R. John Repique is vice-president/chief administrative officer and chief nursing officer for Behavioral Health Services at Jackson Health System.

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