Family members of those with severe mental illness breathe a sigh of relief, while some consumer advocacy groups raise concerns about stigma and the alarming consequences of losing civil liberties.
I wonder how perceptions about mental health, versus an understanding about severe mental illness, inform public opinion and media discourse.
Indeed, much of the population seeks counseling for life-difficulties, transient symptoms of anxiety or depression, marital problems or personal growth. The CDC estimates that 25% of Americans have a mental disorder at any given time. Many of these people seek to improve their mental health and well-being – and often do so successfully, benefitting themselves, their families and society at large.
Severe mental illness follows a disease model and develops based on genetic and epigenetic factors. These disorders require a multitude of interventions, -pharmacological, psychological and psychosocial.
People diagnosed with severe mental illness suffer – from debilitating symptoms and stigma. Uninvited voices and visions make reality confusing, threatening and uncontrollable. Distorted beliefs about the self and other make relationships difficult. And unpredictable intense mood-swings can result in hopelessness.
Treatment is intensive and often only available to those who can afford it. Many people with severe mental illness end up with substance addictions, living on the streets or in prisons. Many are estranged from their families and unable to complete formal education, much less deal with the stressors of regular employment.
About 4% of people with severe mental illness have a history of violence. It is this segment of the population who is referenced in the news reports and the subject to all matter of media speculation. People suffering from severe mental illness deserve additional resources. Recovery is possible, but does not take place in isolation.
Let’s be mindful that severe mental illness does not encompass the majority of those seeking mental health treatment. Yet, treatment needs of those with severe mental illness are significantly different from those with intermittent mental health concerns.
Laws aimed to improve treatment availability and reduce violence should be geared towards the needs of the small minority of the mentally ill population who suffer from severe mental illness. Let’s not stigmatize anyone suffering from a mental illness; but let’s put resources where they can best serve those whose debilitating symptoms have made it difficult to obtain them otherwise.