Stop the Mental Illness Stigma

A Seattle, Washington resident climbed a tree last March outside Macy’s and refused to come down. When police tried to intervene, they were pelted with pine cones. A hashtag was started and jokes were made that traveled around the world. People thought of him as a harmless oddball. But his mother wasn’t laughing. She informed the public that her son has a mental illness. He has paranoid schizophrenia and she had asked repeatedly for help. She felt hopeless because she had exhausted all avenues of help for him. “They just put these people back on the streets” his mother said. “People are scared of him. He’s paranoid and violent. I’ve pretty much prepared myself for his death.”

In some undeveloped countries the mentally ill lack access to psychiatric care. I’ve read about people being chained to trees rather than hospitalized. In America, our prisons house 10 times the number of mentally ill residents than state psychiatric hospitals. According to a 2012 study, nearly 15% of all prison inmates have signs of psychoses. Some would say that in Illinois, Cook County Jail has become the largest mental health provider. Of the 76,400 people who were admitted in 2012, 45,840 were people with a mental illness.

The tree climber was jailed and held on a $50,000 bond after being charged with malicious mischief, third degree assault, and was ordered to stay away from the tree. The tree had $8,000 worth of damage. The jokes turned to compassion and then to calls for reform. Rather than incarceration, the mentally ill need improved access to care. Incarceration doesn’t cure people with mental illness and they don’t deserve to be mocked.

In Illinois, our state budget crisis has caused the closing of psychiatric facilities. Thus, making it difficult to find appropriate treatment for people in need. As we face a revamp of the Affordable Care Act under our new presidential administration, my fear is that there will be even fewer resources available for our nation’s most vulnerable people.

Marvin Lindsey, CEO of the Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois, states “You put your resources where you think they’re important, and right now, the states’ actions suggest that people with mental health conditions, or people with mental illness, are not really important.” Without adequate care, people who suffer from mentally illness utilize emergency room services, may be homeless or reside in shelters or are jailed. Providing community based mental health care is cheaper.

Mental illness is treatable. One psychiatric hospital has a sign that reads This Is a Hospital Dedicated by the State of Illinois to its People for Their Relief and Restoration – a Place of Hope for the Healing of Mind Body and Spirit Where Many Find Health and Happiness Again.

So here’s the call to action. Stop the stigma, start being compassionate toward people with mental illness, and advocate for improved health care.

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