Lael Walz: Change the conversation: untreated mental illness is the problem
Stop grouping mental illness with substance misuse, violence,r and abuse.
For those of us who live with mental illness every day, this hurts and promotes discrimination. What you really mean is untreated mental illness. There is a huge difference, and we need to change the conversation.
Millions of people who live with mental illnesses work hard to manage and have productive, wonderful lives — you may not even know we have a mental illness.
Untreated mental illness is the concern. Untreated mental illness robs people of lives, family, happiness, and a sense of productivity. Untreated mental illness can result in substance misuse, violence, and abuse of others. Unfortunately, too many people with mental illnesses are untreated.
What are the statistics? According to the National Institute of Mental Health:
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• In 2017, there were an estimated 46.6 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States with any mental illness (AMI). This number represented 18.9% of all U.S. adults.
• The prevalence of AMI was higher among women (22.3%) than men (15.1%).
• Young adults aged 18 to 25 years had the highest prevalence of AMI (25.8%) compared to adults aged 26 to 49 years (22.2%) and aged 50 and older (13.8%).
However, only 42.6% of these people received treatment. That means over 57% did not receive treatment.
Of the 18.9% individuals experiencing a mental illness, 4.5% of us have a serious mental illness such as severe depression, bipolar illness or schizophrenia, and only two-thirds received treatment — one third did not.
That’s the problem — untreated mental illness. That needs to be our focus.
We know now that mental illnesses are not the person’s fault; more often it’s due to the genetic roll of the dice. Individuals have a genetic predisposition that is triggered by environmental factors, similar to other chronic health conditions, according to Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D. of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Mental illnesses run in families. I remember when we whispered when someone had cancer. We need to stop vilifying mental illness.
If you or someone in your family is experiencing distress and/or behaving in ways that are concerning, learn, get help, see your doctor to rule out other possible causes, and get a referral to a mental health professional who understands mental illnesses. Not all mental health professionals do, just like medical professionals. It’s a specialty.
Complicating matters, 50% of us who have a severe mental illness also have a brain condition that prevents us from realizing something is wrong. Called anosognosia, this brain condition is a barrier for individuals to accept treatment, because “I’m Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help” — eloquently explained in a book by that title written by Xavier Amador and also available locally at our county library.
It can be hard accepting treatment, finding good professionals who can help, and learning how to manage. But it is worth it. We know that first hand.
Lael Walz is president of NAMI Nevada County. She lives in Nevada City.
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