-by Dr. DeeJay Donlin, PhD, LP
Orange City Area Health System Behavioral Health Clinic
A mental health awareness month has been around since 1949. Each year, all kinds of statistics are provided regarding the prevalence and consequences of behavioral health difficulties.
For example, current information from the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 1 in 5 adults will experience a mental health difficulty at some point during their life. 70% of youth in juvenile justice systems had at least one mental health condition and at least 20% live with a serious mental illness.
Only 41% of adults and just over half of children aged 8–15 in the US with a mental health condition received mental health services in the previous year.
Untreated behavioral health issues are reported to cost over $190 billion annually (from National Alliance on Mental Illness) because of lost wages. Despite obvious concerns and consequences, we continue to struggle with adequate recognition, acceptance and treatment of behavioral health issues.
Survey data published in 2018 suggested that the strongest barriers for people seeking behavioral health treatment continued to be cost and stigma. In 2008, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act (MHPAEA) was passed, which was designed to require group health plans and health insurance issuers to provide mental health coverage that not be more restrictive or expensive than medical–surgical coverage (with some exceptions).
Although the law was very helpful, the fear remains that seeking treatment (medication and/or other therapies) will be prohibitively expensive. Interestingly, the concern for cost of care for medical treatment is a similar barrier and we continue to struggle how to adequately address this concern ethically, socially and politically. Although the short-term costs seem inordinately expensive, we sometimes lack the foresight regarding the long term costs of neglected medical/mental health care.
Perhaps a more daunting barrier is the concern regarding stigma.
In some metropolitan areas, the acknowledgment of taking psychotropic medication or going to therapy may be acceptable and even somewhat of a status symbol. However, in most parts of our country, the acknowledgment of behavioral health issues and the seeking of treatment often results in fear of being labeled/blamed/judged, experiencing social or economic discrimination or a sense of being weak or inadequate.
Although lifestyle choices can sometimes impact both medical and behavioral health issues, the increasing awareness of bio–genetic causes of illness has had a limited impact on public perception. If there were simple or quick solutions to this issue, they would have been implemented years ago.
Nonetheless, we could do a few things today to reduce stigma. One area is education.
Informing ourselves that experiencing a mental health issue does not mean someone is labeled as “schizophrenic” or “depressed” but rather is experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia or depression. Tom is still Tom, but he has certain symptoms.
It also means being aware that someone with behavioral health issues is no more likely to be violent than anyone else. In fact, people struggling with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violent behavior by others.
Another area is communication.
Being transparent ourselves, as well as being willing to reach out to others about issues, reduces the tendency toward secrecy. Celebrities and athletes who have acknowledged behavioral health issues have been credited with opening the door for others to seek treatment.
A third area to mention is “action.”
We all have a tendency to hear something or read something and say “that’s a good idea” and then go back to our routines of daily living.
Starting today, consider challenging labels, acknowledging the normalcy of a behavioral health disease and reaching out and encouraging treatment to those who are experiencing issues.