Mental health reform should start now

May 4, 2013 

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it would seem appropriate at this time to take a look at mental health services in our bi-county region with an eye toward addressing some of its most serious shortcomings.

But first, let’s take a look at mental illness and perhaps shed some light on many of the misperceptions about this ubiquitous problem. Remember that more than 20 percent of the U.S. population suffers from an identifiable mental illness in any given year.

The single most important factor in understanding mental illness is the recognition and acceptance that it is a medical condition and, as with most medical conditions, it is treatable.

Mental illness is a neurobiological disorder of the brain that results in a chemical imbalance that manifests itself in terms of behaviors that are regarded by society as “abnormal” or “anti-social.” In fact, it is the behaviors of those afflicted with mental illness that define the disease. Examples are depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia and generalized anxiety disorders. These conditions are not curable, but they can be treated — usually with a combination of medications, psychotherapy and the development of interpersonal relationships that foster a sense of well-being and acceptance by others.

Just as a malfunction of the pancreas leads to a condition called diabetes, a malfunction of the brain leads to abnormal behaviors that are collectively termed mental illness.

Society embraces those with diabetes and they are treated by administering insulin as a life-long condition of wellness. Similarly, other medical conditions such as cancer, heart disease and hypertension are accepted and treated with appropriate medications along with compassion and understanding.

Sadly and tragically, society does no such thing for those who suffer from mental illness. In fact, people with mental illnesses are all too often treated by booking them into jail for primarily minor, non-violent misdemeanors. They are most often placed in isolation and restraint and denied even the most basic of human needs. Apparently, our society thinks that punishment somehow cures mental illness.

Incarcerating people who suffer from mental illnesses is the worst possible approach to dealing with this formidable disease.

It results in what is called “decompensation” or a worsening of their illness. The resulting costs to society of this approach are enormous in human and financial terms — far more so than providing appropriate, on-going care and treatment.

So what can be done to solve this problem? For starters, our community leaders and government officials can adopt a set of strategies to implement the provisions of the State’s Mental Health Transformation Plan. This plan was developed over a five-year period with funding from the federal government.

The MHTP provides a pathway for communities to develop specific strategies that will result in a comprehensive system of treatment and care.

In the Tri-Cities we need to place high priority on jail diversion strategies including the creation of a community mental health service center — complete with evaluation, crisis stabilization, detox and medication services.

Additionally, we need to establish a mental health court that would help to divert many individuals with mental illnesses from the criminal justice system into treatment and wellness programs.

Finally, we need to urge our county commissioners to follow the lead of 20 other counties in the state and adopt the legislatively authorized 0.1 percent sales tax increase for “new and improved” mental health services.

A recent community survey conducted by the Benton-Franklin Health Alliance identified mental health services as one of the top five community health needs and the number one health concern in elementary and middle schools according to a survey of school counselors.

The need is clear: Mental health reform efforts are long overdue!

Gordon Bopp is president of Washington chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI.

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