Each October, the nation recognizes Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 5-11) — a time to educate the public about the challenges facing those struggling with mental illness.
Comedian Robin Williams helped to put a face on mental illness following his August suicide. He is a prime example of how many people don’t appear ill on the outside, but who suffer on the inside.
Mental illness is more prevalent than you might think. In Florida, 660,000 adults and about 181,000 children live with serious mental-health issues. Still, just a fraction of those people receive treatment.
Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder.
When we talk about diseases such as cancer and heart disease, those afflicted are called “victims,” but when it comes to mental health there is a stigma attached that leads to shame and discrimination. That, in turn, leads to fear, mistrust and even apathy on the part of society.
That stigma is one of the reasons those with mental illness either can’t get insurance for treatment, or don’t seek out treatment for fear of being ostracized by friends, family and society as a whole. Often, insurance companies make it difficult by limiting the amount of care a patient can receive, limiting the provider network available to them or cutting rates of mental health professionals, thus providing them with little incentive to take on new patients or even continue to treat existing ones.
Astonishingly, Florida ranks 49th in the country for per-capita public mental health spending, according to a report released earlier this year by the Florida Council for Community Mental Health. Families of those suffering from mental health issues must often overcome impossible hurdles to get effective and appropriate treatment.
When it’s time for lawmakers to create a statewide budget each year, funding for mental health services often is among the first to be cut. This is a short-sighted strategy that only serves to shift the burden of taking care of those with mental illness to other already overburdened areas such as nonprofit organizations, police, the courts and prison.
Although state lawmakers expanded mental health funding during the last legislative session, Florida continues to operate with Medicaid reimbursement rates that have not been increased in two decades.
Recently, the Miami Herald reported that after more than a decade of being tied up in bureaucracy, Miami-Dade County commissioners gave their blessing to design and construct a new Mental Health Diversion facility that will serve as a one-stop shop for those suffering from mental illness.
While this is a step in the right direction, it’s just a drop in the bucket. The article goes on to point out that in a recent study by the Florida Mental Health Institute, 97 chronic offenders over five years accounted for 2,200 arrests, 27,000 days in jail and another 13,000 days in crisis units, state hospitals and emergency rooms at a cost of close to $13 million to taxpayers.
Without treatment, the consequences can be overwhelming: unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and wasted lives. The cost of untreated mental illness is more than $100 billion each year in the United States, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
If treated, even those suffering from a serious mental illness can go on to live satisfying and productive lives. Instead, unfortunately, many of these people end up living on the street, in prisons, or, worse yet, end up committing suicide.
When it comes to mental illness, education is key. While many mental illnesses don’t become symptomatic until someone is in their late teens or early 20s, it’s imperative that we educate our population at an early age.
And, when it comes to funding, society must ensure that the money goes to the right places: Prevention and screening, the provision of services and treatment and making medications more accessible and affordable.
Ben Brafman is the clinical director, president and CEO of Destination Hope, a nationally recognized substance abuse and dual diagnosis treatment facility and the Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center, both located in Fort Lauderdale.