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Addressing the Public Health Problem of Mental Illness

by Richard Westlund on Categories: public health

Addressing the Public Health Problem of Mental Illness

Mental illness is one of our nation’s most serious public health problems. It is often invisible and usually ignored in our society. Think of a child who threatens his parents, a homeless person who hears voices or an elderly person who can no longer live on her own.

Today, an estimated 40 million Americans suffer from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders or other types of mental illness that all too often lead to suicide, divorce, unemployment or physical or emotional abuse.

Those individual deaths and personal traumas and family tragedies rarely make the headlines, unlike the tragedy of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Parkland. In that case, a 19-year-old who had repeatedly demonstrated violent thoughts and behaviors purchased a semiautomatic AR-15 and ten rifles with deadly consequences.

Under Florida’s Baker Act, individuals can be hospitalized for up to three days for examination if authorities believe they pose a threat to others or themselves. This cooling-off period can allow a person with mental illness to receive crisis intervention treatment, preventing possible injury or loss of life.

However, mental illness is frequently a chronic disease like diabetes or hypertension requiring long-term treatment, such as counseling and medication. Patients need to be seen by a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professionals on an ongoing basis.

Because of the costs associated with mental health care, many private insurers limit the benefits they provide. On the positive side, many larger companies now offer employee assistance programs (EAPs) that include at least some coverage for mental illness.

Other obstacles to addressing this public health problem include a shortage of trained mental health professionals – especially those with the skills and cultural sensitivity necessary to treat children, adults and families in our highly diverse society.

Another problem is the difficulty in assessing patient outcomes in our data-driven society. While a clinical trial of a new drug can produce clear results, it is much more difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of mental health treatment on an individual patient – especially in dual-diagnosis patients who are also dealing with alcohol or substance abuse issues.

Finally, the mentally ill are often stigmatized in our society. Family members or employers may not understand why a person who appears to be successful might be in serious medical trouble, like comedian Robin Williams who killed himself after losing the battle with his inner demons.

Until the 1960s, patients with serious, intractable mental illness were often hospitalized for long-term care. Since then, most of these state facilities have closed, as the responsibility for care was shifted to community agencies, which typically lack the necessary resources.

While there is no simple solution to the challenge mental illness, we cannot afford to continue looking away from this public health issue. These children, teenagers and adults are among the most vulnerable members of our society. They deserve our understanding and support, along with the best possible care and treatment. Anything less is simply unacceptable.

Richard Westlund


South Florida Legal Guide

March 5, 2018

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