Dispelling myths about mental illness is essential
By Sharon Raggio
Questions about Jared Loughner’s mental health are arising, which is fueling a national conversation about mental illness, funding and accessibility.
Loughner is the 22-year-old man who allegedly killed six and injured 14 in a Tucson, Ariz., Safeway Jan. 8. While there is much speculation as to the young man’s motives, slowly, in the public discourse an important conversation is taking shape around our country’s mental health care system.
There are two significant, yet moveable, barriers to mental health treatment: social stigma and funding scarcity.
Treatment of people with a mental illness is often hindered by a prevailing social stigma and discrimination. Many people who would benefit from mental health services do not seek them out or fail to continue treatment once they have begun, due to this stigma. The negative impact of stigma is also observed in the general health care system. People labeled mentally ill are less likely to benefit from available physical health care services than people without these illnesses.
The tragedy in Arizona has spoken to our nation’s core, sparking many provocative dialogues. At Colorado West Regional Mental Health, Inc., we believe strongly that it is time to open the dialogue and speak as freely about mental illness as we do about heart disease or breast cancer.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness state statistics, mental illness in Colorado is common. Of Colorado’s approximately 4.9 million residents, close to 158,000 adults live with serious mental illness and about 52,000 children live with serious mental health conditions.
✓ In 2006, 730 Coloradans died by suicide, which is almost always the result of untreated or under-treated mental illness.
✓ During the 2006-07 school year, approximately 54 percent of Colorado students aged 14 and older, living with serious mental health conditions and who receive special education services, dropped out of high school.
✓ Colorado’s public mental health system provides services to only 15.9 percent of adults who live with serious mental illnesses in the state.
✓ Colorado spent just $72 per capita on mental health agency services in 2006, or $339.9 million, which was just 2.2 percent of total state spending that year.
An important aspect in eliminating stigma is dispelling myths. People with mental health conditions are no more likely to be violent than the rest of the population.
A very small group of individuals with a specific type of mental health symptoms is at greater risk for violence if their symptoms are untreated. There are highly effective, science-based methods to successfully treat persons with even the most severe mental illnesses. Treatment works.
Mental Health First Aid improves the mental health literacy of our community. This 12-hour course is designed to teach the public skills to help someone developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis situation. The philosophy behind the course is that mental health crises, such as suicidal and self-harming actions, may be avoided through early intervention with people developing mental disorders. If crises do arise, then members of the public can take action to reduce the harms that could result.
Upon closing, I would like to stress three important points for the public to remember when framing mental illness in the context of a violent crime:
✓ People with mental illness rarely commit violent crimes, although this is when they receive the most attention.
✓ In our state, mental health is not supported adequately through funding, insurance reimbursement and private donations.
✓ In order to move the conversation forward about mental illness, stigma must be eliminated.
Sharon Raggio is president and chief executive officer of Colorado West Regional Mental Health, Inc. and Colorado West Psychiatric Hospital, Inc. They are headquartered in Glenwood Springs, with offices in 10 counties: Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Mesa, Moffat, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, and Summit. Together, the two organizations reach more than 13,000 adolescents, adults and families annually on the Western Slope.