Mental Illness in Crisis

Guest Commentary

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Yet another tragedy. This time, two Iowan police officers shot and killed by Scott Greene, a man known to have had reoccurring episodes with law enforcement and a history of mental illness. Add this to the long list of tragedies that show how great the need to fix our broken mental health system.

I’m the mother of a son who suffered from severe bipolar disorder that sadly resulted in his death. My family and I are so grateful he never hurt anyone.

State laws vary, but all states set strict controls regarding involuntary hospitalization with forced treatment, limiting it to circumstances when a person is a danger to self or others, or likely to become so. Current laws impede treatment for serious mental illness by emphasizing patients’ civil liberties ahead of their treatment.

We cannot continue to ignore the large segment of people like my son and Mr. Greene who are too sick to recognize their illness and either don’t seek treatment or refuse it. We do not tell Stage 3 cancer patients to return for treatment when they reach Stage 4. Yet we require severe mentally ill individuals to reach the crisis stage before we treat them. That is wrong.

People suffering from severe mental illness are among the most marginalized and underserved in our society. Our failure to care for them comes at a high cost – not just in economic terms, but in wasted human potential. Yet with proper diagnosis and treatment, many patients are able to overcome their illness, contribute to society and live normal and happy lives.

There have been multiple legislative proposals introduced in Congress to improve our mental health system. The strongest bill to help those suffering from severe mental illness is from Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania. The bill is very appropriately named “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis.” In July, the House passed Congressman Murphy’s bill by a near unanimous vote…422 – 2. It had been endorsed by more than 40 professional mental health organizations and 77 editorial boards and news publications. The bill has advanced to the Senate, waiting for Congress to return to Washington in the coming weeks.

According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, there are 8.1 million adults who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder…and sadly, 3.9 million go untreated in any given year.

There are over 950 deaths every day related to mental illness – suicides, homicides, overdoses and mentally ill homeless people dying prematurely.

The cost to incarcerate thousands of mentally ill people in our jails and prisons is monumental. It cost more to have people with mental illness in the criminal justice system than it does to treat them effectively outside the system.

 

Congressman Murphy’s bill provides treatment before tragedy by:

-Increasing community-based alternatives to institutionalization for those with serious mental illness.

-Providing additional psychiatric hospital beds for those experiencing an acute mental health crisis.

-Expanding the mental health workforce and the number of licensed mental health providers.

-Creating grants for specialized training of law enforcement officers and first responders to recognize individuals who have mental illness and how to properly intervene.

-Establishing an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders to coordinate the federal approach to mental health and substance use treatment.

As Congressman Murphy said recently, “Until the Senate takes action, our nation will continue to mourn more fatal shootings, suicides and other preventable tragedies related to serious mental illness. We cannot keep ignoring this grim reality, hoping it goes away. America deserves treatment before tragedy.”

 

Dottie Pacharis

Mental Health Advocate and Author, Mind on the Run – A Bipolar Chronicle