Editorial: Confronting mental illness in Topeka

NAMI Family to Family Workshop will reduce stigma and improve mental health access

Andrea Conlee discusses her experience participating in the National Alliance for Mental Illness Family to Family Workshop. (Chris Neal/The Capital-Journal)

Considering how widespread mental illness is in the United States, why don’t we dedicate more resources to education and treatment? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 43.4 million American adults had a mental illness in 2015 — just under 18 percent of the total population. This means it’s a virtual certainty that you have a friend or family member who suffers from a mental illness. But stigma remains alarmingly common and public investment in effective treatment is nowhere near where it should be.

 

To get some appreciation for how far we still have to go when it comes to combating stigma, consider this disturbing statistic from a CDC survey conducted in 2007: “Only 25 percent of adults with mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness.” The respondents have good reasons to hold this view — according to a 2013 report published in Administration and Policy in Mental Health, “Public stigma of mental illness in the U.S. continues to be widespread among children and adults.”

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior reported that 68 percent of Americans don’t want someone who’s mentally ill to marry into their families. And 58 percent wouldn’t even feel comfortable with a mentally ill coworker.

Then there’s the lack of access. A 2008 Harris Interactive/American Psychological Association poll found that “25 percent of Americans do not have adequate access to mental health services and 44 percent either do not have mental health coverage or are not sure if they do.” Moreover, a 2006 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Agency reports that nearly half of Americans who suffer from severe psychological distress and problems with substance abuse don’t receive any form of treatment. It shouldn’t be surprising that there are 10 times more mentally ill Americans in our jails and prisons than in state psychiatric hospitals.

And this problem is right next door: Almost 25 percent of the inmates in the Shawnee County Department of Corrections are mentally ill.

These are all reasons why we’re grateful that the National Alliance for Mental Illness will host its Family to Family Workshop in Topeka this January. The 12-week workshop will address all the issues outlined above: From informing people about the resources available in their community to providing strategies for communicating with family members who are coping with mental illness. The course will also provide information about specific mental health conditions and “current treatments, including evidence-based therapies, medications and side effects.”

By engaging with the community, NAMI is simultaneously demystifying mental illness and reminding people that a vast range of treatment options exist. This eliminates stigma and increases access — the two most critical elements in improving mental health in our community.

To appreciate the real value of the Family to Family Workshop, you just have to take a look at what Andrea Conlee said about her experience as a participant: “It gives you permission to cry and revisit those emotional struggles.” She says the workshop helper her understand her parents’ mental illnesses and allowed her to “make peace, not only with them but with myself.” She said the workshop was “one of the best things I ever did.”

Now Conlee is going to lead a family support group and help the people of our community make their own peace.

Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.

 

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