Mental health and mental illness have been in the media and on the lips of more Americans in the past four months than likely at any other time in our history.
Unfortunately, the tragic Newtown school shooting has focused attention on violence and mental illness and stirred up the stigma that comes when people are misinformed and fearful.
Along with the discussion of gun control and mental illness has come a spate of stigmatizing comments about what effect mental illness has on the ability of individuals to run for public office and stigmatizing commercials like Nabisco's implying that the appetite for Wheat Thins would cause someone to be a psychiatric hospital patient and to require physical restraints.
Here are the facts:
At least one-fourth of us will experience a behavioral health issue (mental illness or substance-use disorder) in a given year. The U.S. Surgeon General, in a landmark 1999 study verified that statistic and described the range of mental health issues, from mild and episodic to the more serious and persistent mental illnesses to those that involve substance use and are referred to as co-occurring disorders.
We know that women are two to three times more likely to experience depression than are men, and victims of abuse are significantly more likely to develop mental health problems.
The more serious and persistent mental illnesses (schizophrenia, bipolar disease, major depression) are brain diseases.
Individuals with mental illness are many times more likely to be victims — and not perpetrators — of violent acts.
More than one-fourth of individuals with severe mental illness were victims of violent crime in the past year, 11 times the rate in the general population. However, the misinformation and resulting stigma persist, adding to the lack of treatment and isolation of those diagnosed with a brain disease.
Treatment for mental illness works and recovery is possible, particularly with more effective medications and new treatment approaches.
This commentary was signed by 36 other mental-health advocacy organizations. A list of contacts for those groups is available on a PDF here.
Sheila Schuster is with Mental Health & Healthcare Advocacy in Louisville.