Last month, an important date passed with too little notice.
Oct. 10 was World Mental Health Day. Established in 1992, its objective is “raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.”
The day deserves our attention because the challenges we face in this domain are of epidemic proportion.
One number sums up the situation: 20 percent of Americans over the age of 12 have a mental health condition. That translates into 45 million people.
When additional data is added, the picture becomes bleaker.
The situation is worsening: over the last 20 years, mental illness has become the second most common cause of disability in America.
Too many of those who need help are not receiving medical support.Last year more than half of those with mental illness did not get treatment.
The economic price of serious mental health is enormous: it annually costs America $450 billion in lost earnings and health care costs.
And the problem is not only extensive, it is also complicated. This makes solutions elusive.
Examples of the complexity follow:
• The kinds of mental illnesses include, but are not limited to, ADHD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, dementia, depression, eating disorders, panic attacks, phobias, PTSD, schizophrenia, substance abuse.
• The causes of mental illness include, but are not limited to, brain injury, genetics, infections, neglect, stress, substance abuse, toxins, trauma.
• The treatments include, but are not limited to, management, medication (traditional and alternative), peer support, psychotherapy, self-help, support groups.
And another factor needs to be considered — prejudice and shame create misinformation about mental health: that it is caused by weakness or self-inflicted, limited to adults, untreatable, rare, of minor import, always incapacitating and invariably leading to violent destructive behavior.
But there is good news here as well. Over the last several years, the issue has been brought to the public’s attention by the tragedy of high-profile suicides and the bravery of individuals — some well-known — who have talked publicly about their struggles.
If we are to make progress, we need to implement an inter-related four-part strategy. We must keep the issue alive in the public’s mind to ensure it receives the attention and resources it deserves. We must remove the stigma that impacts those who have the disease(s) and accept that this is a medical issue no different than cancer or heart disease.
We must both provide appropriate health care and ensure that those who need the support reach out for help.
And we must continue to research and understand the conditions, the causes and the treatments.
The vibrancy and stability of a society rests, to a great degree, on the well-being of its residents. And the well-being of the residents rests, to a great degree, on their physical and mental health.
Even in today’s world of divided ideals and loyalties these are obvious national priorities.
Albus Bumbledore said that “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one remembers to turn on the light.” It is time that America turned on the light about mental health.
Gene Budig is the former president of Illinois State and West Virginia universities and former chancellor of the University of Kansas. He was also president of baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.