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The invisible battle: Mental illness remains undertreated

robin williams sarah michelle gellar the crazy ones Robin Williams’ suicide showed how mental illness can affect even a seemingly happy person.
Credit: CBS

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to pick just one topic to address during National Mental Illness Awareness Week, which began Sunday. So many recent tragic events have thrust mental illness into the spotlight: the suicide of Robin Williams, the Santa Barbara killing rampage and veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress.

And these are just the stories that make the headlines; there are far more going untold among the nearly one in five American adults who suffer from a mental illness, according to the National Institutes of Health. Many are fighting quiet, private battles — with disorders ranging from moderate depression and anxiety to schizophrenia — to avoid the stigma that persists despite mental health advocates’ efforts to debunk myths, change attitudes and rally support for policy reform.

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Those who suffer include people of all ages, from every ethnic, racial and socio-economic background. They include adolescents, entertainers, business executives, bus drivers, engineers, teachers, writers, soccer moms and even psychologists. Because the vast majority of them pose no risk to anyone other than themselves, their struggles aren’t acknowledged. But without proper treatment, these people risk countless smaller, personal tragedies such as losing their jobs, identity, autonomy and relationships, even with those who love them most.

While some are under professional medical care, about 60 percent of adults and almost half of young people between the ages of 8 and 15 with a mental illness received no mental health services in the previous year, either because of shame, not knowing where to go for help or a distrust of mental health professionals. In extreme cases, they may not even know that they’re sick.

But no one has to suffer alone. Here are resources that can help.

National Alliance on Mental Illness

For every mentally ill individual, there is usually at least one person who worries about them. Some have become self-taught experts in mental health, schooled in the hard knocks of navigating a highly flawed, insurance-dictated mental health system and laws that favor patients’ rights to self-determination. As a friend whose mother is schizophrenic explained, “I am often simultaneously filled with tremendous rage and deep compassion.”

In addition to its advocacy efforts, NAMI provides free weekly support groups and education for individuals living with mental illness and their loved ones. Some affiliates offer “warm lines,” a hotline staffed by people in recovery themselves. Visit NAMI.org for more information on resources and events.

Free depression screenings

National Depression Screening Day is Oct. 9 and dozens of health, education, military and public organizations will offer free screenings, which can be done in person or online. Those who meet the criteria will be referred to local agencies that offer further evaluation and, if needed, treatment options. To find a free screening in your area, visit www.helpyourselfhelpothers.org.


Mental illness by the numbers


From the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health of U.S. adults:

  • About 43.7 million U.S. adults 18 or older (18.6 percent) reported suffering from a mental illness; 9.6 million of them (4.1 percent) were struggling with a serious mental illness.

  • The rate of adults with mental illness was highest among those aged 26 to 49 (21.2 percent), followed by those aged 18 to 25 (19.6 percent), then by those aged 50 or older (15.8 percent).

  • An estimated 9 million adults (3.9 percent) had serious thoughts of suicide within the past year.


Kim Schneiderman’s book, “Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life,”is being published in the spring. Email your questions toaskkim@metro.us and check out her website, Novel Perspective.

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