I began my career in the early ‘60’s. My chosen professional goal was to try and reach as many people as possible in an attempt to help change the negative connotation of mental health into a more positive framework. It is now almost sixty years later and I’ve not completely succeeded in my quest. Mental health is still the bastard child of medicine. To some, the very mention of this concept, or god forbid, the words ‘mental illness,’ seems to be avoided with even more trepidation than the word ‘cancer.’ In most auspices serving the public, like school systems and clinics, mental health specialists are usually the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Why?
I’m sure that there are a number of plausible reasons for the kind of avoidance and stigma that mental health and illness experience. The one that I believe might best suits the explanation, unlike a physical condition, is not able to be as readily visible or even diagnosed. In the turn of the last century, those with mental health problems would be locked away in family attics or in mental institutions. The classic movie, Snake Pit touched on the horror of those days.
People make jokes about mental illness. Since it has to do with the mind, there is a tendency for people to be afraid of what is considered to be an unknown entity of the human person. That which cannot be seen may be considered to be evil … like a curse … which has been cast on an individual. The obvious reality is that a person is made up of both physical and mental components that can become ill, needing specialized care and understanding. Social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists have labored within the parameters of their professional specialties not only to treat but to find ways of eradicating the devastating effects of mental illness through medical and pharmaceutical research, direct services and the greater availability of services and programs.
All of that professional activity is fine and good but it will not provide the answers that are necessary. In order for any sense of accomplishment to become reality, the public sector must recognize and support these efforts in a way similar to how so many other physiological illnesses receive public support and funding. In other words, the emotional atmosphere surrounding the issue of mental health needs to be more conducive to accepting it as a problem that requires a concentrated effort much as cancer and polio have received from our society.
Horror stories about homeless men and women suffering from mental illness conditions being accosted and beaten by young people still surface in the media. The positive spin that might help are the countless tales of military men and women returning from active duty and suffering severe physical and emotional problems such as PTSD or obsessive thinking patterns that disallow their re-entry into society. Another positive aspect is the recognition that mental health services must be contained in health insurance contracts.
Recently the Justice Department reported that more than half of the prisoners in the United States have a mental health problem, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Our Country now houses three times the number of mentally ill people in jails as it does in mental institutions. This shocking statistic reveals the “secondary nature” effect of mental health in our society which has long considered the problem to be the bastard child of important illnesses. Admittedly, great strides have been made in this field but the roots of the problems continue to grow to epidemic proportions.
I have long advocated that in order to accomplish an effective method of dealing with mental health issues is to educate the public. However, I do not only mean the adult public. I believe that mini-courses touching on mental health problems should be addressed with children as early as the second or third grade. Issues such as anger management, dealing with peer pressure, bullying, dealing with anxiety, dealing with fears are just some of the topics that would appropriately be addressed by teachers in their classrooms.
In order to accomplish such goals, though, raising public awareness regarding preventive solutions would be necessary. For this purpose, parent-teacher conferences, the mainstream media and public speaking engagements by qualified professional mental health experts could create a positive stir in the population akin to selling a new product or even Obamacare. Taking the risk of thinking out of the box would be the prerequisite for those who may be staid in their perceptions that schools are only supposed to teach the 3-R’s.
(29 November 2014)
Both as a consultant and author, Charles Bonasera’s story-telling have motivated people to change patterns and resolve problems in their lives. All of his books contain valuable, practical lessons that people can easily apply to bettering and managing their lifestyles. He has also written a myriad of articles which can be found on his website at www.charlesmbonasera.com.