May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. We are called to be mindful of our own mental health and to tune in to all those whose lives are touched by mental illness. Mental health and mental illness, directly and indirectly, affect us all…though we don’t always recognize this, and are often uncomfortable acknowledging it. When our mental health is good, we tend to take it for granted, just as we do our physical health. But when our mental health is poor, or when we love and are caring for someone whose mental health is poor, we may feel isolated and unsupported within our communities. Many feel obliged to remain silent about mental health that can’t honestly be described as “Great, thanks!” or “Fine, how about you?” This unhelpful silence can largely be blamed on the effect called “stigma” or truly, discrimination.
The effects of discrimination against people with mental illnesses are far-reaching and severely limit the social mobility of these individuals in society. Fear of discrimination, and fear of being perceived as vulnerable or as a burden, make it difficult for people whose mental health is not “great” or “fine” to seek the support of family and friends, not to mention the support and understanding of employers. Discrimination makes it hard to seek professional help, and hard to get insurance coverage for that help when sought. To make matters worse, rather than making support and care readily accessible, in America we tend to ignore mental health until symptoms of illness result in behaviors that disturb the prescribed social order, and then we lock people up rather than helping them get treatment.
The mental health advocacy community has invested a great deal of time and effort into countering discrimination against people with mental illnesses. SAMHSA has even released a toolkit to help interested advocates develop “anti-stigma” campaigns of their own. The stranglehold of discrimination seems intractable, however. Whether it comes from the negative portrayals of mental illnesses in movies and television, or the overt ways in which perceptions of people with mental illnesses can negatively affect jury sentencing, to the many other institutionalized forms of discrimination, it is clear there is still an uphill battle to be waged against the stigma and discrimination that prevent us from achieving our best mental health as individuals and as a society.
Earlier this month, Equitas co-sponsored the first Global Summit on Mental Health Culture Change. On May 2nd, as part of this event, Equitas convened 18 experts on behavioral health and criminal justice in Los Angeles County for a look at local barriers and solutions. Then, on May 3rd, at the Global Summit, Equitas’ Executive Director Vincent Atchity proposed that changing direction on how we treat people with mental illness demands that we close the gap between where we say we want to be as a nation of good people dedicated to liberty and justice, and where we actually are as the incarceration nation that largely manages mental health through jails and prisons. Getting it right with mental health in the U.S. requires some significant course corrections, not least of which is acknowledging just how wrong we are getting it now, and how out of step we are with our most important values.
Throughout the month of May, organizations working to improve perceptions of, and advocacy and services for, Americans with mental illness focus their efforts on raising awareness and supporting dialogue about mental health. According to their website, on May 20, 2017, “Families for Treatment of Serious Mental Illness (TreatSMI), a nonprofit organization focused on advocacy, support, and education for the seriously mentally ill and their family members, is coming together with friends and fellow advocates for (their) first annual march demanding the right to treatment before tragedy for the 10 million Americans who suffer from a serious mental illness.” Joining this march is one of many ways you can get involved in improving our mental health. Read about more ways to be involved on Equitas’ website.