It is Long Past Time to Take Action About Mental Health in America | James Hooks

Six college students were killed in Santa Barbara last Friday, and their deaths could have been prevented.

Eighteen months ago, twenty children and six adults were killed at an elementary school in Connecticut, and it could have been prevented.

A little under two years ago, twelve people were killed at a movie theater in Colorado, and it could have been prevented.

Mental health funding in the United States has suffered cuts and negligence in recent decades, leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans on the streets, behind bars, in homeless shelters, or simply isolated and miserable. In many cases, this leads to preventable suicides. In some cases, these same people (who either have had treatment or have been approached by people untrained to recognize someone who needs treatment) have been on the trigger end of a weapon they should have not had access to, causing the needless end of many lives.

How do the numbers add up in terms of dollars and population? In the U.S., mental illness accounts for just six percent of total health care costs. The cost of the treatment, lost productivity, and disability payments, however, adds up to $450 billion. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year, which translates to 57.7 million people, or one in four adults.

Full infographic:
Full infographic:

How did the United States get to this point?

Armed with little more than optimism, a group of high-minded psychiatrists helped start the National Institute of Mental Health and set in motion an ambitious agenda for the next half-century: closing the state mental hospitals, initiating a federal takeover of the mental health system, and creating a nationwide network of community mental health centers.

Reform was well underway when President John F. Kennedy endorsed this new era in mental health calling for a “bold new approach” in which “reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability.”

Those were heady days in American psychiatry, when psychoanalysis and the mental hygiene movement held sway and promised to cure all manner of ills by early intervention and improving the social environment. In hindsight, the therapeutic zeal of these professionals was impressively naïve: they were certain that severely mentally ill patients in state hospitals—many living there for decades—would magically adjust to the community and do well with outpatient treatment.

How wrong they proved to be.

We now live in an age where people do not talk about mental health without associating it with the word “crazy”. Those who do not have the means to effectively deal with mental health problems in the family either ignore the issue or leave it in the hands of poorly-trained people to make life-changing decisions. Law enforcement who get a call on checking on one’s mental state will often be convinced that everything is okay, because they do not understand what the tell-tale signs are. We walk away from apparent problems without identifying the causes of them.

There is also another epidemic that has not been talked about much: toxic male entitlement and the MRA/PUA movement that devalues the lives of women. For almost as long as modern human civilization has existed, women have been treated as second class citizens, with men taking dominance in all familial and societal decisions that have shaped the direction of our planet. It was until recently that women have been given equal opportunities as men, and even then, things such as equal pay for equal work is a topic that continues to be discussed in the 21st century.

While it would be irresponsible to place the blame on the Isla Vista tragedy on men’s rights activities, it would be equally irresponsible not to look at some of the arguments that are being made by them: men can’t be blamed for rape; women receive preferential treatment in the workplace; society is crumbling in recent decades because of women’s additional rights. Similar arguments are often made about racial equality in America, but that’s neither here nor there.

One point that often occurs during tragedies is the speculation about an agenda or conspiracy to take guns away from lawful gun owners. There are those who see an event like Friday’s and call for all guns to be abolished; there are others who fear that people in power are using mass shooting events as a reason to stock up on weaponry. For one, while the United States Constitution was written at a time when the need for guns for safety was much greater then than today, there is no politician that is going to make a call to repeal or further amend the second amendment. Two, the mental health discussion should not immediately invoke a discussion about guns. If anything, the lack of action after the deaths of elementary children should show where most of the country lands on that issue. Instead, the discussion about gun laws and safety should include better background checks and increased scrutiny for those who wish to purchase firearms as a preventative measure, with possible renewals for licensing over time in the event an individual’s mental facilities decrease over time. There should also be a greater emphasis on better training for weapon carriers, increased education on how best to defend oneself and one’s property with a gun, and better awareness about the gun laws in each individual state, so that people are aware of their rights on the federal and state level.

The mental health discussion should be about how to provide better funding for agencies to provide for the mentally ill, better education for law enforcement on how to recognize mentally unstable people, and a culture change that allows for the discussion to take place without fear of retribution or off-hand dismissal. Our country needs to follow in Kennedy’s words and make sure that people who display mental illness get the attention they need.  Services based on bettering the community are the first to experience a cut in government funding in economic downturns. Short term, this may seem to save our government money, but in the long run will continue to affect other parts of the community and the people in it, thus requiring an increase in other services and increase in funds, which are often not provided.

To do nothing is complete political and societal neglect. We have a problem with providing care in this country for those who need it, and it is long past time to have more than just a discussion about what we should do to prevent future tragedies from happening.