The National Alliance on Mental Illness[i] reports that one in four adults have a mental illness. Take pause for one second of your day today to raise your eyes from your smart phone to look around you. See that woman over there? She’s one…keep it going. Count four people. Are they standing, sitting, or walking by you? STOP at four. Yes, one of those, yes…61.5 million Americans have a bout of mental illness of some form or another in a given year. One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14 with three-quarters by age 24. The number four person you counted, how old do you think they are?
The CDC[ii] reported in 2013 that an estimated 13 –20 percent of children living in the United States which is 1 out of 5 children experience a mental disorder every year. Next time you are in a grocery store, department store or movie theatre, look up and count again. One small child hounding his mom for popcorn.
Another running circles around his father while he tries to reign him in. Three. Four and a fifth, a nine-year old staring blankly into space as those around her engaged in friendly chatter. One of those children is suffering with mental illness. And although an estimated $247 billion is spent each year on childhood mental disorders, they are increasing and more than 50% of those children’s illness are not being addressed.
These statistics break my heart. My family experienced mental illness without resources in spades. I know we are not isolated or rare, however, and that is even harder to swallow than the outcome of what happened behind the front gate of my white picket fence.
Families all over the country are being told to call the police, restrain their children, and medicate in their living rooms with the likes of prescription drugs that were once only common in state-run mental health facilities. Until a child cries that someone is hurting them or hurts or worse, kills others, there is barely a framework of support for the family – often left with the finger of blame pointing straight in their direction.
Are they victims? The jury is out. The more important truth is that no one is taking responsibility for there being a bare bones band-aid to support families raising the 20% of children that will become the 25% of adults with mental illness, if they survive their own battle towards self-destruction. More than 90% of suicides occur in those that have had mental disorders.[iii]
In October of 1980, then outgoing President Jimmy Carter signed the Mental Health Systems Act[iv], which had proposed to continue the federal community mental health centers program, although with some additional state involvement. Just a month later as Ronald Reagan on the heels of taking the presidency and probably before he’d even spent his first weekend in the white house no less read the entire Carter Mental Health Commission file, Reagan dumped the Mental Health Systems act and the appropriated funding to support the state’s programs was immediately blocked.
In this legacy of shame and disregard for the American people, President Reagan never understood mental illness. It wasn’t for lack of exposure as it was reported that several of his own family members suffered from various levels of mental illness. Rather, it was more ignorance and a sheer lack of interest in identifying ways to approach and care for those struggling with it. In the end, much of the out-picturing of that move towards sweeping the issue under the rug became clear as homelessness of the mentally ill soared.
No longer were there facilities or programs to support the growing need. No longer were there appropriations to develop new strategies or research to address the increasing incidents of mental illness. Board and care homes and state hospitals across the nation were bolted and to this day sit like empty horror houses, the haunting echoes of those that once sought care there now only ghosts in the halls.
It’s been a long 34 years since those first days when the shuttering of those services pushed so many back into the streets, homes, schools and of course jails. It wasn’t too long before everyone realized that deinstitutionalization of patients from state mental hospitals was a huge mistake. Crime and homicide doubled and tripled and the percentage of inmates with mental illness increased threefold if not more. And yet, nothing short of band aids were applied on the gaping wound not being addressed. Those band aids aren’t covering the wounds in families in this country. The statistics are undeniable. Mental illness doesn’t just crop up in the adult population, it often begins as young as five years old and there are so few resources for families who are parenting these children it’s ridiculous.
It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome. Where does change begin? It begins with each of us. Speaking our mind, advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves and making noise about the inequalities of support services for invisible disabilities. Eradicating the stigma surrounding the need for the services might just be the first step of many, but until we take the first step, we’re not being accountable to the needs of so many. Look around. Count to four. Know the strength in numbers. If two or even three in four stand up for the rights of one in four, change happens – for all of us.[i] National Alliance on Mental Illness, http://www.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf
[ii] 3/13 -Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mental Health Surveillance Among Children —United States, 2005–2011
[iii] National Alliance on Mental Illness, http://www.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf
[iv] Mental Health Systems Act of 1980- http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=45228