As a mental health advocate, I was pleased to read Martin Espinoza’s recent “Crisis care” series of articles documenting the current crisis in mental health care in Sonoma County. This well-written and researched series presented both a poignant and accurate portrayal of what those who have mental illness and their families are facing on their journey to seek good mental health care in Sonoma County.
It is because of heart- breaking stories like those Espinoza documented and the desire to seek resolution for the many who are suffering that I flew to Washington, D.C. this summer to attend the 2017 National Alliance For Mental Illness convention. NAMI is the largest grass-roots mental health organization in the country. The conference drew renowned scientists, social researchers, children and adults with mental illnesses and mental health professionals.
I joined my voice to theirs for mental health advocacy on Capitol Hill as 1,066 NAMI advocates were transported busload after busload to the Capitol steps. The sheer number of advocates who traversed the country to speak with members of the Senate and House shows the desperation that people with mental illness and their families nationwide are feeling in their plea for accessible quality and affordable mental health care. Their voices echoed the plight of mentally ill people in Sonoma County as described so vividly by Espinoza.
Mental illness has taken a back seat to other devastating illnesses for too long. Many Americans have placed a stigma on mental illness, viewing it as a character weakness rather than the chemical imbalance it is. Remarkably, it has only been in recent years that “mental health parity” (meaning that mental illness insurance coverage would be the same as for other illnesses) was legally required of most insurance companies and health plans in California. Even today parity is often not enforced.
Politics is part of the picture. Espinoza pointed out the irony of the archaic Institutions For Mental Disease exclusion, which prohibits federal dollars from being used for adult patients treated at certain kinds of psychiatric facilities. This means that most adult medical patients with serious mental illnesses that require hospitalization must be sent outside the county even when we have existing mental health hospital beds available right here in Santa Rosa, such as at Aurora Hospital. This is not just baffling but downright shameful.
More than 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year. Twenty veterans nationwide take their life every day. The No. 1 reason children are admitted to hospitals is for depression or bipolar disorder. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people age 15 to 24 years.
A recent national survey found that one in six high school students (17 percent) reported seriously considering suicide in the previous year. One in 13 (or about 8 percent) reported actually attempting it. That hits close to home. If you think of mental illness only when you see a homeless individual experiencing hallucinations, think again.
Mental illness is complex and can be very expensive to treat. We are still very much in the dark ages in what we know about the brain. Research into new drugs is desperately needed. However, there is good news. Young scientists at the conference shared their work with genetic and stem cell research that could help break the code to the mystery of mental illness and aid in the development of more effective psychiatric drugs.