Despite school shootings and random violence committed by perpetrators who later admit they had quit taking prescription medication, the topic of mental health is both hotly debated and surprisingly ignored. The subject immediately ignites strong views, whether on the validity of the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM), the state of pharmaceutical influence on psychiatry and vice versa, or even personal beliefs people hold about mental illnesses. Now, with the knowledge that many of those with compromised mental health are adolescents, just try and picture the resulting social and political tsunami of change that might have to occur in order to properly address the hot button topic of affordable, accessible and convenient treatment options, and it is no surprise to find a lack of general consensus amongst the average group of United States residents.
However, while the opinion of a typical American may be an interesting barometer on our country’s attitude toward mental health treatment, it is the scientifically-grounded, empirically valid studies that one would think ought to capture our attention. After all, if people know that a given treatment method has been proven effective, does it not stand to reason that they would support its promotion? Perhaps the real issue is that people cannot agree on the very basic fact that mental illness is a prevalent issue of concern in our nation.
The “home of the free” and the “land of the brave” hardly seems to correspond with 2014 statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), stating that most of our disabled population is composed of the mentally ill, with numbers now reaching one in four Americans. Furthermore, a cultural focus on youthfulness as the ideal distracts Americans from the reality that roughly 20 percent of the mentally ill are between the ages of 13-18 years old, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, as reported last year. And this number only appears to be increasing.
Even back in 2004, published findings from the National Child Development Study, the 1970 Birth Cohort Study and the 1999 British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Survey indicated a considerable rise in the percentage of adolescents, ages 15-16, who demonstrated emotional conduct and mental problems. Additionally, SAMHSA found that nearly thirteen percent of adolescents, aged 12-17 years, were actual recipients of mental health counseling or treatment for emotional or behavioral problems in 2009. Half were seeking treatment for depression. So where does this all end? We already know that mental illness begins young, and has strong ties to significant childhood stress, such as substance abuse and instability in families. We also know that NIMH reports in 2013 that the need for mental health services has increased for those ages 8 to 14, by 90 percent. In other words, youth mental health is more likely to decrease upon entering adolescence, and that’s usually the time when many parents are more concerned with saving (simultaneously) for their kids’ college educations and their own retirement. From these pieces of information, it can be deduced that the problem does not lessen with age, therefore making adolescence a critical time to seek solutions, and yet common sense and practicality also dictate that monetary concerns are diverted to other causes.
It’s time to find solutions. The United States has already invested some time and money in finding and providing mental health solutions, particularly to those in their youth. In 2013, the McCrory Administration’s Crisis Solutions Initiative was announced in North Carolina as a state method of dealing with mental health and substance abuse needs. This act includes funding for youth mental health first aid and walk-in crisis centers. In addition, the Affordable Care Act is expanding coverage for mental health and substance abuse treatment, including Medi-Cal, a health insurance program established in 1966 for those unable to afford regular healthcare.
Really, much of the problem comes from the root of many ills in society; the historical stigmatization in policies and practices. Throughout history, in almost every culture, mental illness has been a constant but troubling aspect of the human condition. People with mental problems have been seen as having spiritual darkness and/or as being mentally deficient, useless and immoral. Multiple sources and accounts attest to the persecution, torture, maltreatment and institutionalization of mentally ill individuals.
The United States’ views and treatment is no exception, and though we do not resort to the same kind of harsh and sterile institutionalization today, there is still considerable stigma attached to mental illness, and we do not protest to a lack in proper treatment with the same resolve with which we might attack physicians who refuse life-saving treatments for physical ailments. NPR actually had to address the growing concerns that the mentally ill were naturally violent. It’s almost hard not to make this leap from “ill” to “dangerous” (or deranged killers) when recent events like the Seattle Pacific University make it clear that young people who go on shooting rampages are usually suffering from severe mental problems. However, it’s good to remember that mental illness is not, in and of itself, a sign of a dangerous person, and that affected youth can improve their symptom management with adequate treatment and support.
Photo Source: Porsche Brosseau via flickr