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National Attitude Is What’s Crazy

Fri., Oct. 10, 1997

I know what it is like to be mentally ill with clinical depression. Not just feeling down but lost in dark despair. Sleeping too much or not enough. Eating too much or not enough. Drinking to cover the pain. Not caring about anything - appearance, social activities, church, family celebrations, hobbies. No energy. Crying over small (and generally imagined) slights. Mad at myself. Mad at the world. Can’t concentrate. Thoughts of suicide. Aware my behavior is making others uncomfortable. But unable to heal myself without help.

It is estimated that one in five Americans has suffered from a major mental illness. That includes major depression, manic-depressive and anxiety disorders and schizophrenia - all biologically driven emotional illnesses.

One would think that with so many people coping with mental illness there would be more understanding about it. That no doctor would tell a fearful patient who can’t leave her own home that her problem is “in her head.” That family members would recognize help is needed for someone who hears voices no one else hears.

For the mentally ill, there is often little understanding and even less respect. People afflicted with other illnesses - terminal cancer, for example - are treated with loving care. But a suicidal individual suffering from depression raises more ire than empathy. No one sets out to get cancer or chooses to be depressed. People don’t have a lot of choice in what diseases they will have or whether they will succumb to them.

Still, mental health issues are not seen in the same way as other health issues. A recent study shows that, of the managed-care companies overseeing health care for Americans on Medicaid, fewer than half consider a suicide attempt to be a medical emergency.

Further, patients suffering from schizophrenia, depression and other brain disorders are often denied hospital care.

Yet major mental illness is the direct cause of death in three of every 100 deaths in America. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 25- to 44-year-olds and the third leading cause among younger people.

According to Project Awareness, an organization dedicated to major mental illness education, people with mental disorders are confined to bed for more days per year than those with lung disease, heart problems and diabetes. One of four patients seeking medical care for physical problems is actually suffering from a mental disorder.

Cost-cutting has hit some of the most seriously ill patients because they don’t have a socially acceptable disease.

How much more suffering does there have to be to convince the medical profession, insurers and the public at large that mental illness is not a bad attitude but a real illness? That the mentally ill can, if properly diagnosed and treated, lead productive lives? That major brain disorders should be prioritized with heart disease, cancer and all other life-threatening diseases when defining health care policies?

Forty million Americans each year have bouts of severe mental illness. It isn’t easy getting help when one’s illness is seen as “crazy,” shameful or bothersome.

Is it any wonder with mental illness viewed in such a way that only one in five of those of us who have a major mental illness ever seek help?

This is Mental Illness Awareness Week. It’s a good time to start paying serious attention to debilitating and destructive mental illnesses that too many people dismiss as either too insignificant or too disconcerting to be treated seriously.


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