Community must understand challenge

When the Substance Abuse &Mental Health Services Administration reported in January that 1 in 5 Americans are currently diagnosed with a mental illness and undergoing mental health treatment, it caught people’s attention. There was finally a commonality about it.

But, even with those newly released statistics, our societal viewpoints have gone unchanged. As the child of a mental health consumer, a consumer in recovery myself, and a professional in the community mental health field, I want to start the conversation about change — because mental health matters.

Our communities need to learn the truth about mental health — it is a diagnosis, a part of the person, not the person themselves. Our children should be learning about mental health in middle school when they can develop a sense of empathy and understanding around it and our communities need to be engaged by teaching their citizens to embrace each other’s differences.

Over the last two and a half centuries, our viewpoints have expanded — from the days of warding off the evil spirits of mental illness and chaining those only guilty of having one (mental illness) to beds in gruesomely dim rooms, to the historic movement of deinstitutionalization (the movement of severely mentally ill consumers out of institutions into communities under the Community Mental Health Center Act — CMHC) in the late 1950s, to the current successes of evidence based practices like ACT (assertive community treatment) and IOP (intensive outpatient program). There is much to be said about where we have been and the realities we see today.

The cost of mental health is a burden that every one of us as U.S. citizens shares. Whether it be financially, through emotional insecurity, community safety or uneducated fear, we are all affected. Financially, tax revenue fluctuates dramatically with the economy and in turn directly affects those who receive services and those who fall through the cracks. The last three are all undoubtedly intertwined — we as citizens know little to nothing about mental health unless it directly impacts us. Emotional insecurity and community safety are the direct cause of uneducated fear.

We require our children to take sex education and Drug Abuse Resistance Education in our public schools and hope that the information provided will steer their decisions later in life. Mental health should bear the same level of importance in our youth since their age group is the most common for diagnosed onset, ages 14-19. Our public schools should be offer a curriculum to educate our youth about the impact mental illness has on those diagnosed, the families they live with, and the communities they live in.

Education is the key to all of this. Communities and consumers alike need the educated support of one another to change the painful realities we all face. That is developed through conversation, a willingness to participate, and a vision of hope for the future. With the recent events filling our evening newscasts all pointing at untreated mental illness or too little too late, the time for this conversation is now. Uniting for our communities, our families, and most importantly, our children’s future — mental health matters.

Jenifer L. Galvan is founder and executive director of the Everett-based PEER Roots Foundation (www.peer-roots.org).

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