Mental health: America’s elephant in the room

In today’s political environment of soundbites, prepared party-line talking points, agenda-driven news media stars and non-stop information gushing at every American like a river of lava heading down a mountain top, it’s easy to lose sight of what the real problems are in our country and where they rank.

While a myriad of specific issues seem to lay somewhat dormant in the national spotlight until their turn comes about on the never-ending news cycle carousel — some that come to mind immediately would be national defense, the economy, crime, the deficit, gun control, abortion and gay marriage, among others — others seem to lay in the weeds. Disguised. Turned away in large part because of one reason or another (none of them acceptable).

The mental health crises in America is a problem like that. And make no mistake — it is a crises of gargantuan proportion. Whether politicians, family members, co-workers, clergy, teachers and administrators, and folks with outdated views want to talk about it or not, it is America’s giant, pink elephant in the room.

The stigma and denial associated with mental health disorders like bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia are real — I’ve witnessed both. Like many others who write about mental illness, I’ve been affected both near and far by the sometimes shocking and horrifying wrath of such illnesses. My stories aren’t any worse than many people I know and many who will read this post, so I’m not going to delve into those experiences. The much greater point is that alarming numbers of Americans are faced with the first- or second-hand consequences that mental illnesses cause. Those consequences are often heartbreaking and, all too often, preventable.

The numbers are there, the data is there — it’s all there. Look them up. Whether it’s the war veteran back from Afghanistan down the the street or the family member who was long ago dubbed as one who “struggles” or has “issues,” these illnesses are affecting us, our families, co-workers, schoolmates and friends and the lack of available help for the mentally ill is — I refuse to sugarcoat this — disgraceful.

In a 60 Minutes piece ( that aired Jan. 26, the story of Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds was profiled with Deeds explaining to CBS reporter Scott Pelley how, on the night of Nov. 19, his son, Gus Deeds, attacked him, stabbing him several times before committing suicide by turning a gun on himself. As the senator explained, Gus was less than 24 hours removed from being on an emergency custody order, but was released because no psychiatric bed was available at the time. Showing clearly visible scars on his face from the attack, Creigh talked about how the system had failed his son and about how he didn’t want Gus to be defined by what happened that fateful night.

Tragic as the Deeds’ story is, it’s not the norm, which is why I believe we continue to, as a nation, look away from the problem of the large numbers of Americans suffering from mental health issues. Most suffering from a mental illness — about 26 percent of Americans 18 or above in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health — won’t ever act out in such a violent way toward another person, but a staggering amount of those diagnosed with a mental illness will attempt suicide at least once. In fact, more than 90 percent of Americans who do commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness, according to the NIMH.

In a story that appeared on CNN’s website in November, numbers from the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center showed that the number of state psychiatric beds available in the U.S. was about 43,000 as of 2010. To put it into prospective, that number represents about one-tenth of what it was in 1960. There are also similar numbers I could cite, numbers that would illustrate the extreme shortage of psychiatrists in Ameriac or the toll that emergency rooms across the country endure from countless individuals using the ER as a last resort. The list would be enough for another 10 blog posts. Though far too many people don’t want to talk about it, we’re failing miserably in this country in the mental health department.

What we’re dealing with is a fiscal problem and, at times, a safety problem, but, more than that, it’s a human problem. It affects our sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, parents, friends…..this crises touches nearly everyone in some way. The pain of having a mental illness or loving someone who does is a unique pain, a helpless and unrelenting pain.

One of the true tragedies is the fact that we only seem to talk about mental health issues when incidents like Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Aurora or Fort Hood happen. Everyone reading this knows what those places represent. Only a hermit living in a cave wouldn’t know about the mass shootings that took place within the past 10 years at those places. Yet, what do our politicians and do? They take advantage of those tragedies, usually to either lobby for more gun control or lobby for more guns allowed for private citizens or more armed police in certain public areas or schools. In other words, they play politics.

I’m not about to get into a gun debate, that’s not what this post is about, but I will state this with no apology: Our political leaders — too often while spouting off about gay marriage, whatever war we’re in at the time, gun control, when a baby becomes a baby, food stamps, government spending and the latest political sex scandal — have failed us on the mental health issue.

America needs to make some changes to the way it thinks about, combats, funds and ultimately frames the problem of the mentally ill. These people, by and large, are not monsters — they’re the people we interact with every day. Waiting until a mentally ill person commits a crime and tossing them in jail or prison (places that are packed with mentally ill individuals who receive little or no treatment) doesn’t work. Waiting until they attempt or commit suicide doesn’t work. Turning the other way and pretending the problem doesn’t exist work.

Turning the tide of this issue will take a lot. It will take a new way of looking at the overall problem, funding, awareness, leadership and, maybe most importantly, the ability to have a meaningful national dialogue. We can do better. We can do a lot better.

In fact, let me rephrase that: We need to do a lot better.