Mental illness needs to come out of the closet

The Kansas City StarDecember 18, 2013 

A young woman in a lecture hall of 400 to 500 students at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism approached me after I led a question-and-answer session on diversity to quietly talk away from her classmates.

She had heard me say that 17 percent of the 308 million people in our population have a known disability. But I also said the number is actually greater than 50 percent, considering the disabilities no one can see.

The young woman wanted to know whether the invisible disabilities included mental illness. The question caught me by surprise, but it shouldn’t have.

A number of students on college campuses contend with mental health concerns like stress, anxiety and depression as they cope with financing their educations and making good grades. The woman’s question should have been asked when everyone else was in the classroom.

Mental illness often isn’t seen as a disability or a diversity concern, but it is and has always been recognized as such by the American with Disabilities Act. It is a much bigger picture than what is frequently portrayed in the media, especially after mass shootings and other catastrophes.

Most people with mental illness don’t harm others. They suffer silently and alone. The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers some insight:

One in four adults, or 61.5 million people, experience a mental illness in a given year. About 20 percent of young people ages 13 to 18, and 13 percent ages 8 to 15 experience severe mental disorders in a given year.

About 26 percent of the people in homeless shelters have a serious mental illness. About 18.1 percent of American adults live with anxiety disorders.

About 20 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners have a recent history of a mental health condition. Also, 70 percent of the youths in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental health condition, and at least 20 percent have a severe mental illness.

Yet about 60 percent of adults and almost half of youths ages 8 to 15 with mental illness received no mental health services the previous year. It’s why it was important for President Barack Obama this year to call for a national dialogue to increase people’s understanding and awareness of mental health concerns after several mass shootings.

However, most of the people suffering mental illness aren’t a danger to others. The most pressing concern is what might the illness do to them.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It is more common than homicides. Suicides are the third leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24. More than 90 percent of the people who commit suicide had one or more mental disorders.

Suicide also is a major problem in the military especially with service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. People who have been in the armed forces constitute less than 1 percent of the population, yet veterans represent 20 percent of suicides in this country. “Each day, about 22 veterans die from suicide,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports.

The alliance also says serious mental illness costs this country $193.2 billion a year in lost earnings. A lot of times people with mental illness and their families suffer in silence and absorb the financial, social and other costs alone.

The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, should help direct more services and resources to people with mental illnesses. But for mental illness to get the attention it deserves, it has to come out of the closet.

The stigma that’s attached has to go away along with the fear, embarrassment, shame and discrimination. Discrimination and prejudice keep people with mental illness from seeking treatment so they can get better and function in society.

They only want to be productive citizens. That is what others should want for them, too.

Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star’s editorial board. Email him at Ldiuguid@kcstar.com.

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