Charlotte Fletcher is president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Elkhart County. To learn more about NAMI call 596-6464 or visit namielkhart.org.
This is National Mental Illness Awareness Week. Unfortunately, you have read about mental illness in the last year with the Sandy Hook Elementary disaster, the shooting at the Washington Naval Yard and, just last week, the woman ramming the gates at the White House. But did you know that the vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent? The public is often misinformed about mental illness because of sensationalism and misinformation from the news media and entertainment industry. This contributes to fear and stigma (a mentally ill person is viewed as having a mark of disgrace or discredit). Most mentally ill people are actually victims, not perpetrators. It is true that some patients (like the three cases above) who are not on their medication do become violent, but the vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent.
The most common mental illnesses are bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, chronic depression, post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and borderline personality disorder. It is estimated that about half of the people in this country with a mental illness do not take medication. This is due to several factors, including a broken mental health system, a denial of a mental illness by the patient and family and undesirable side effects of taking some medicines.
Mental illness can start in childhood, mid-life or old age, but most commonly it strikes just as the person is entering young adulthood. Mental illness is an illness like any other. Diabetes is a disease of the pancreas, Parkinsons is an illness of the nervous system. Mental illness is a disease caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. A person cannot recover from chronic mental illness without medication and therapy; they cannot will themselves well.
While people with cancer and other illnesses are helped and supported, people with mental illnesses are often ignored, shunned or made fun of. Would you consider doing this to a friend who has high blood pressure or a bone disease? People with a mental illness need love, support, and medical attention like people get with any other illness.
Here are some facts about mental illness:
1. Support and education about mental illness by family members has a positive impact on the patient’s wellness.
2. Mentally ill people can gain wellness and lead productive lives.
3. There are more mentally ill people in jails and prisons in this country than in hospitals. There are not enough beds in hospitals; in prison, they are at least contained and get some type of medicine. This is a national disgrace. Obviously, the jail atmosphere is not the best, and patients do not get quality care.
4. The mental health system is broken. Indiana received a rating of D by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2010.
5. Post traumatic stress disorder can be treated with talk and/or writing therapy.
6. A youth who smokes marijuana before the age of 14 is 10 times more likely to develop schizophrenia. A youth who smokes it before the age of 18 is five time more likely.
7. Many people with a mental illness have anasognosia, the inability to realize they are ill. It is an effect of their illness, not a weakness on their part.
8. Due to brain chemical imbalance, people with a mental illness have a reduced ability to feel good about life and their accomplishments. They use drugs, alcohol and nicotine in an effort to feel better. This is called dual diagnosis. Clozapine works best on dual diagnosis in schizophrenia by reducing the desire for substance abuse.
9. There are communication techniques like LEAP that family members can learn that help communicate with their loved one. This and much more can be learned in a nationally acclaimed class called Family to Family.
10. You are needed to help fight mental illness in Elkhart County. For more information, go to namielkhart.org, the official website of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Elkhart County, to learn about our programs. You can also go to nami.org, the national website. With enough support from the community, we can do much to improve lives.