Mental health is a public issue

Published 12:37 am Sunday, November 11, 2007

Quick. Think of five families you know. National statistics show one of them is likely affected by mental illness.

For decades, mental illness wasn’t discussed much. Most chose to look the other way. Mental illness was considered a family problem not a public one.

Fortunately, some of the taboos about mental illness are changing. Most of us know someone who has had at least a mild form of mental illness such as moderate depression, mood swings or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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But others face much more serious forms such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

The good news is that in recent years treatment for such disorders — both mild and severe — have improved dramatically.

The bad news is that we often still fear discussing the matters in public and we still have virtually no infrastructure in our community to help families cope with severe disorders.

Faced with a family member who is severely mentally ill and violent, families often must turn to law enforcement for help.

Parents must have their mentally ill children arrested. Adult children sometimes do the same for parents.

It’s a sad state when families must lock up relatives who have committed no crime.

They’re sick, not criminal.

Spending public money on mental facilities — or working a public-private partnership to provide an alternative to the jail cells — may not be popular to our leaders, but it’s greatly needed and massively overdue.

Each day of inaction on this issue is another day in which more families are ripped apart by the torture of not only the illness, but also a system that gives them horrible options to cope with the illness.

Quick. Think of five families. Which one would you make lock up their loved one?