Yesterday the world lost one of the greatest comedic actors of all time, Robin Williams, to one of the most misunderstood diseases, depression. Robin Williams spent a lifetime fighting depression and substance abuse. Yesterday, he lost his battle and died after committing suicide by asphyxiation. He is just one of the 40,000 people who will die this year of suicide. This is a serious health problem that will not get better if we continue to neglect our mental health and the public mental health system.
Mental Illness Statistics
The statistics about mental illness and suicide are frightening. Suicide took the lives of almost 40,000 people in 2013 while flu claimed 1,500 people last year and Ebola has killed almost 1,000 people so far this year. The point I am making is that if depression, anxiety, and suicide were caused by a virus we would be petrified. I know those are infections that are contagious while depression is not but it can strike at anytime, to anyone, at any age no matter what race, economic level, or any other demographic details you can think of. A person can be happy with life going well one moment to the pit of despair without warning. A person who is depressed needs to be seen as someone who is seriously ill with a deadly disease like Cancer, HIV, or Ebola. One more thing, if these numbers have not scared you enough, the problem is getting worse because these numbers are way up and is expected to continue to get worse.
Mental illness in this country is now at epidemic proportions affecting 1 in 5 Americans. If you don’t think that sounds bad, let me put it a different, even more alarming way, That equals out to more than 61.5 million (according to NAMI) people who are suffering from mental illness. Yet we still place a stigma on these people that prevent them from seeking help or they do not have health insurance and cannot afford to get treatment. The Government is no better because they do not fund mental health treatment programs and the programs that do get public funds are so radically underfunded they are powerless to help[*].
The state of treatment
Here is the dirty truth about how we got into such bad mental health in this country. It starts with the Reagan Administration. Under President Reagan state mental institutions closed with the hope that the private sector would foot the bill. The private sector did not step up leaving the mentally ill on the street because too many people with mental illness cannot afford treatment. Today, things are worse because our population increased but mental health funding has not. For the ones who can afford treatment, most are often medicated which may work well but often have adverse side effects that can be permanent such as the tic disorder tardive dyskinesia. To make matters worse, many drugs can be sedative and can actually increase the risk of suicide.
As of today, there are very limited treatment programs for the mentally ill so limited, that a former Virginia Governor Candidate Criegh Deeds’ son could not get a bed and ended up stabbing Deeds and killing himself. So what are we doing with the mentally ill? We put them in prisons.
We have the highest inmate population in the world with a prison population of 3 million people, a number that is higher than China and we are not talking per capita. At least 25 percent of inmates have a mentally illness and are incarcerated for minor or non-violent offenses. Talk about human rights violations; this is an absolute atrocity placing sick people in jail, destroying families and perpetuating generations of mental illness. The worst part is that it’s actually cheaper to treat the mentally ill than it is to incarcerate them.
We are fed a bunch of lies about being tough on crime when most of the prisons in US are privately owned and traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Earning mass profits not on rehabbing but lobbing to maintain the highest prison population in the world. The prison system is broken and until we care about this issue nothing will change.
Making a change
So what can be done? First we need to invest in treatment programs for the mentally ill and research more effective and safer treatments. We need to invest in brain research to better understand mental illness on a cellular level. We need to change our prison, drug laws, and sentencing so we can stop imprisoning people who commit minor violent crimes or drug possession and making them hardened criminals. We need to not punish these people especially children and get them rehabilitation, education and mental health treatment. So when they get out they don’t go right back in. We need to provide access for health care for all people so that all people can obtain mental health treatment.
These are macro approaches that need to be done. However, we are not helpless in saving our loved ones who are suffering. Treatment is effective for most people or will at least work well enough to save that person’s life. To be able to know when we need to seek help is simple, we need to know the symptoms. So what do we look for?
Signs of mental illness
- Withdrawing Socially-A person who is mentally ill may withdraw from friends, family, and other social situations. They might also lose interest in once enjoyable activities.
- Low energy or hyper-energy– A person who is mentally ill may have no or very low energy causing the person to feel no motivation to do anything or even get out of bed in the morning. However the opposite is true too; a person who is manic will seem to be on turbo power and may not sleep for days, have racing thoughts, over spend, and even engage in hypersexual behavior.
- Hallucinations/Delusional Thinking– These are a sign of SEVERE mental illness (if you notice this symptom either in yourself or your loved one I recommended you go immediately to the emergency room or seek immediate treatment). Hallucinations can be aberrations that are visual, auditory, touch, or smell.
- Expressing helplessness or a preoccupation with death– often people who are mentally ill will say things that sound bleak, dark, or feelings of being stuck. They may even express a desire to die or even discuss death.
- Substance Abuse– Alcohol and drug use is a major sign because often the mentally ill will turn to self-medication.
- Changes in Personality and Mood– If you think you or someone is not “acting like themselves” or is “acting funny” you need to get help or get your loved one help.
- Lack of Hygiene– A person with mental illness may stop bathing or caring for their own personal hygiene.
- Reduction or radically increase in sexual desire– A person who is mentally ill could become hypo or hypersexual.
- Feeling sick– We express emotion through our bodies and a person who is chronically ill with no physiological reason could be caused by the emotional turmoil of mental illness.
- Rapid thoughts or incoherent speech– A person suffering from mental illness could have racing thoughts or say things that don’t make any sense.
We all need to take responsibility in improving our national mental health. The consequences of the continuation of the neglectful practices that our mental health system faces will continue to be dire. We will see higher rates of mental illness, suicide, murder, and mass shootings. We must take on this real threat to our national security.
One more thing, it’s never too late to get help or help the person you love. Please call 911 or the National Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-8255. After all, 10 minutes can save a life because that suicidal or homicidal person will stop thinking about that behavior for 10 minutes. During that time, they may come to their senses.