One of the trending topics in the year’s review on mental health in America is that a relatively minuscule amount of people seek out mental health treatment in this country. All the while, youth suicide, and depression are on a rise, and most Americans still don’t have access to mental healthcare.
Mental health isn’t a minuscule issue in the United States. In fact, a fifth of all adults report having a mental health condition going into 2017. That’s more than 40 million Americans or the combined populations of the state of New York and Florida.
In other words, a heck of a lot of people. Meanwhile, key findings that Mental Health America discovered include the fact that we only have one mental health professional for every thousand afflicted individuals in states with the worst statistics on the matter, and a lack of care is creating a greater issue of increasing incarceration as mental health patients hit the streets and find themselves locked up for erratic or illegal behavior tied to their condition. Three states alone – AR, MS, AL – report over 57,000 mentally-ill prisoners in their prisons. Overall, America houses more mentally ill people in prisons than in hospitals by a factor of ten.
That says something about how we see and treat mental health as a country and a society – the awareness around the effects of mental illness and importance of helping those among us who are mentally ill need to be bolstered severely. Don’t get me wrong, there are a dozen hot topics that deserve discussion in the broad field of politics – but mental illness is a field that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and when it does, the headlines are anything but uplifting or encouraging.
Let’s all endeavor to help change that. We’re going to look at some of the factors that contribute to the issues and trends in America’s state of mental health going into 2017, ranking them by actionability on an individual level, and what we can all do to improve the situation in the years, decades and generations going forward.
Stigma and Awareness
It’s been said again and again, but it’s not an issue that goes away overnight – or even over the course of a single generation. The stigma surrounding mental health is real and continues to be a serious issue, not just in the form of discrimination, but also in the form of keeping people from realizing they have a problem or acting upon said realization.
No one wants to be told they’re ill, let alone mentally ill. Too many people are afraid of getting mental health treatment and ending up jobless or shunned from their family and friends for suddenly carrying a label as a high-maintenance mentally-unstable person.
It’s important to spread awareness on the facts surrounding mental illness and to cut down on the sensationalism and fear-mongering around the issues. Approximately 20% of Americans suffer from a mental illness, which means it’s nearly impossible not to know someone who’s struggling with a mental health condition. Our fear of speaking out about such issues is only conducive to an environment in which they thrive – so the issue will only grow.
Furthermore, any discussion around mental illness is mired by not properly including the voices of those who are struggling and coping with such conditions. The individuality of each case also needs to be stressed – you can have two cases of depression with entirely different reasons for depression, entirely different treatment plans, entirely different personalities and entirely different coping mechanisms.
In other cases, there’s a specific level of shame involved with admitting mental illness, particularly among individuals in high-power career paths, or self-determined people. The more stubborn someone is, the more they’re likely to ignore or deny their issues and focus more their work or some other form of meaning. This is particularly prevalent in industries with immense amounts of pressure, like Wall Street.
People need to be told that their experiences, even if they don’t match up with other examples of an illness, are valid forms of an existing illness. Oftentimes, people are in denial about their mental health and struggle to live in spite of it, when they do in fact fall within a gradient of a specific type of disorder like anxiety, depressive disorders or personality disorders.
By removing all semblance of generalization and drawer-sorting, and focusing on the individual, patients can begin to see that the field of mental health is a welcoming safe space to discuss and learn more about a variety of relevant topics to their health – it’s not something to fear.
Distrust and Hopelessness
There’s a profound distrust towards psychiatry and some aspects of mental health treatment, including the use of medication. That’s not necessarily surprising – pharmaceutical companies aren’t particularly known for nuance and scruple and coupled with the fact that not everybody reacts positively (or at all) to antidepressants, mood stabilizers and the like, people feel validated in dismissing the entire spectrum of existing treatments for mental health issues.
That leads to feelings of hopelessness, as patients either suspect that there is no effective treatment for their issues, or alternatively they’re dealing with a mental health issue they can’t afford to treat. It’s easy to feel trapped, not just by the perceived lack of a real solution, but by the feelings of hopelessness that illnesses like anxiety and depression instill within you, to begin with.
The truth is most mental health treatment facilities try and offer a very wide variety of treatment options for the precise reason that not everybody reacts the same way to any specific mental health treatment plan. Treatments must be tailored properly and approached professionally. Diagnostics is as important in mental health as it is to the rest of healthcare because offering a blanket solution only leads to more harm and distrust. And there are coping mechanisms and treatment options that don’t involve hefty fees – while they won’t work for everyone, they’re a start.
The distrust of mental health care professionals might also stem from the relatively nascent nature of a lot of effective mental health treatment. Popular culture also seems to classify therapists as little more than glorified conversational partners, charging a premium sum for an hour of mostly one-sided dialogue and a not very profound conclusion. Meanwhile, other sciences like to rib on psychology and social sciences as being less worthy of study, or riddled with inaccuracies.
While there are good therapists and bad therapists, talk therapy has evolved into a varied tool with application in most mental conditions as a way for patients to regain control over their lives. It’s more than just glorified conversation.
Treating and Preventing Mental Illness
Moving on past distrust and hopelessness, we must understand what it takes to become mentally ill, and what can be done to help treat mental illness, and perhaps even prevent it from getting worse/manifesting at all.
First, the origins – are complicated. Mental illness develops for several reasons, depending on the circumstances of a specific case. Typically, it’s due to genetics, environment, childhood trauma or other event-based circumstances, hormone changes or physical injury. Women are more likely to be depressed or anxious, while men are more likely to suffer from antisocial disorders or substance abuse.
Treating mental illness again depends on the individual. For some, therapy works. Some swear by it. Others can’t stand it, even after giving it a go with several professionals, and instead prefer a simple prescription and a gym membership. Some people pursue healthcare experts for years before going on an esoteric pilgrimage and coming back healthy and changed.
You do have to incorporate the actual finding of your mental health treatment as part of the long-term journey to a better life. Sometimes, learning to live with certain permanent aspects of a condition is more important than fighting against it with every fiber of your being.
Many mental health treatment options double as preventative measures. An informal intervention can help direct a family member away from a dangerous path of self-destruction and onto some better habits. Similarly, replacing maladaptive behavior like an addiction with good sleep, good food, and proper exercise can immediately make a change in a person’s mood and both mental and physical health. A change of scenery can be good for the soul, and the mind. Sometimes, it’s worth exploring certain “treatment options” before stress turns into an actual disorder.
Where psychotherapy has limited success and medication simply isn’t feasible as a long-term option, cutting-edge alternatives and old yet underutilized methods provide a way for people to cope with their issues. From self-esteem and health-boosting treatment options like nutrition plans and physical therapy, to more cutting-edge techniques like somatic experiencing and brainspotting, we can all do a collectively better job of eliminating fake or nonsensical information and backing up real treatments with actual science.
Mindfulness training, for example, doesn’t draw its success in treating anxiety through spirituality or energy attunement, but through improving the brain’s ability to focus and cut down on straying worries and needless overthinking. Some mental health patients tend to think in several tenses at once, worrying about the future, feeling guilty about the past while being frozen with these fears in the present. Some simple meditation can help cut down on that type of thinking.
Meanwhile, physical exercise can boost the body’s natural ability to produce and regulate neurotransmitters, while overall improving your sense of self – both in a visceral, body awareness sense and in the self-esteem sense. Better food correlates with both better physical and mental health, research shows, and certain foods and herbs are particularly effective at warding off depressive symptoms or signs of anxiety.
With the power of the Internet, sharing information has never been so easy. With the power of the Internet, sharing incorrect information has never been so common. Discerning the truth from falsehoods is a matter of just a little bit of research, and can easily help avoid misunderstandings regarding the limitations and true potential of certain alternative treatments. It’s important to be aware of the alternatives, but it’s also important, to be honest about them to people desperately looking for ways to get better – or else you’ll just foster more distrust.
While we can’t individually change the government, we can collectively demand and vote for better healthcare overall. America’s current healthcare system is in slight shambles – the transition from Obamacare into the current administration’s newly-sanctioned healthcare plan will complicate matters, and the entire system as it is makes it hard for Americans to afford adequate care, whether for physical health or mental health.
Improvements have been made over the past few years. Healthcare reform in the past few years has seen an increased rate of insurance and treatment for mental health, although over half of Americans with mental health issues still don’t have access to treatment, and even in the state with the best access to mental health care – Vermont – 43 percent of adult mental health patients lack treatment.
Congress has voted a bill into place to help remedy the situation and see to the care of underserved Americans, but progress is understandably slow. It’s important we remain vigilant and keep an eye on how things develop.
Of course, overall national healthcare access only partially addresses the issue – another reason why health care for mental health issues is so scarce for many Americans is due to the general unavailability of mental health care services in rural areas. There are simply far too few mental health professionals, and not enough manpower in the realms of therapy and general mental health treatment.
Going out of state or traveling unknown miles to the nearest practice to get treated simply isn’t an option for many of these people. Solutions must be devised that help deal with this struggle on some other level, even if only temporarily until mental health services spread throughout the rest of the country. The Internet is a viable source of innovation for the field, for example, and online therapy tools are becoming more and more advanced – and with time, they’re becoming truly valuable therapy tools for patients with no alternative.
Research has proven that online therapy is already an effective tool at treating common mental illnesses like depression. Whether it’s as good as face-to-face treatment is an entirely different question, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as an option for people with no place else to go. Another great argument for choosing online therapy is its general anonymity and confidentiality – the common issue of shame or fear of stigma can immediately be mitigated by offering a treatment no one must know about, to begin with. That’s not an ideal perspective to take, but it does help encourage people to seek mental health treatment – which is what really matters now.
We have a long way to go before the state of mental healthcare in America is anything approaching admirable – but every little bit can help you, and millions of other Americans struggling with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and a slew of other issues daily.