May is National Mental Health Month but who is “minding the store” during the remaining 11 months of the year? Sadly, we don’t need to look far: the recent federal data on surging suicide rates makes it clear we have lots more work to do to help ailing minds.
The greatest obstacle is the stigma that prevents us from having an honest conversation about mental illness – its underlying causes, effective programs and treatments independent of pharmaceutical and insurance industry influence, promising research, and the responsibilities of patients, families, local, state and federal stakeholders.
Speaking of stigma, how many of you remember the game of Cootie Bug? Stigma is a grownup version of having cooties. It feeds on silence. In the words of M.B. Dallocchio, “It’s the silence that persists when discussion and action should be taking place. The silence one imposes on another for speaking up on a taboo subject, branding them with a label until they are rendered mute or preferably unheard.”
Sixty years ago, stigma prevented patients and families from talking about cancer: Today, a cancer diagnosis brings together patients, families, the medical community and supporters who seek to heal and comfort. Compassion rules.
On the other hand, mental illness is an invisible reality that one out of four people live with every day. Thankfully, the media is spotlighting the enormous human and financial toll of mental illness on patients, families, communities and society. This is helping to peel away the stigma and replace it with helpful mental health resources and programs coupled with compassion and hope.
My family has experienced the stigma of mental illness: Stigma made it difficult to get our youngest adult son into treatment and to take responsibility for his mental health. He found the gift of life too burdensome and ultimately died by suicide – death by bipolar mental illness.
Thankfully, today, our community has an array of mental health organizations working to help families like ours. Since our son died, I’ve partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Collier County, FL, on The Surviving Suicide and Sudden Loss Project (www.WriteOnMyMind.com). This project builds on NAMI’s mission: To improve the quality of life of persons affected by serious mental illness and their caregivers through support, education and advocacy.
Here’s what gives me hope: a young boy shows signs of mental distress. His parents contact NAMI and a Health Under Guided Systems (HUGS) navigator is assigned. The child, Blane, has a complete mental health evaluation. Through the years, Blane. his parents and his siblings find support in NAMI’s Family-to-Family program. He takes responsibility for his bipolar disorder and develops helpful life skills. The family’s faith community hosts a NAMI empathy training course so congregants can learn how to effectively communicate with Blane and his family and others in a similar situation.
Blane forms friendships with others who are walking a similar path: they find strength in numbers. When he and his friend turn 18, they will be eligible to go to the Sarah Ann Adult Drop-in Center during the week where they find a safe place to socialize while their caregivers work or take a much-needed Time Out. At the community level, the family is comforted knowing first responders and law enforcement officers have gone through NAMI’s Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) course. CIT keeps our community safer and welcoming for those living with serious mental illness as well as those who are not.
All these NAMI programs and services are provided at no cost to the family and the community. A system of taboo and shame has been replaced by effective treatment, support, compassion and hope. As for Blane, he sees life as “an amazing gift.”
We have the ability to make this scenario a reality. May we find the will to mend both bodies and minds. They are inseparable.