An advocate’s perspective

Published 11:27 pm Friday, May 16, 2008

By Staff
May is Mental Health Month has become a national observance. Mental Health Month raises the level of awareness of mental health and mental illness while helping to reduce the stigma that still surrounds these issues.
Mental illness continues to be misunderstood by the general population because of, in large part, unrealistic portrayals in the popular media. However, in the last 10 to 15 years, no major health area has seen the advances in research and treatment that mental illness has.
Unfortunately, we continue to see mental health and mental illness distorted when tragedies like the shootings at Virginia Tech occur. Condolences and sympathies for the victims continue to pour out across the country. However, one area continues to be overlooked: the person who perpetrated the event is himself a victim of stigma and a lack of mental-health care.
The mental-health system failed in this situation, but we should not let a tragedy of this magnitude stop us from looking at each of our communities to ensure that we are setting the bar high and meeting the expectations for all involved.
When politicians — well-meaning or pandering — send out reports on campus safety that totally ignore the need for mental-health services, they greatly miss the mark. Society would never look at cancer or heart disease this way. This Mental Health Month, we need to change that perspective.
Therefore, let’s look at some of the incredible things going on across North Carolina and beyond to highlight May is Mental Health Month: Wonderful programs and services dedicated to awareness and education, in addition to the work the MHA and others do on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, North Carolina’s mental-health, developmental-disability and substance abuse system still struggles under the weight of transformation begun seven years ago. Policy-makers must have a clear vision for our system: What it will be like when this transformation is done and how to go about achieving those changes. They must take realistic steps to make this goal a reality.
We cannot continue to lay down laundry lists of proposed changes, mandate them, then implement them in various ways across the state, or our system will collapse under its own weight. For you see, in the end, the “system” is not the issue; it’s the people involved — the people who need help and services. This is the true tragedy if needed changes and transformations do not take place within our system in an appropriate and realistic manner. For example, the state of North Carolina needs comprehensive MH/DD/SA crisis services for its residents. However, our first priority should be reducing the demand for crisis services.
Community support has become the elephant in the room. Let’s have a conversation about doing away with this service and what we can do to replace it in a way that makes sense. Let’s have a single, comprehensive information-management system within (local management entities) statewide, fully integrated with the state and providers. Let’s have programs and services that are culturally appropriate, available when needed and centered on the person. Let’s have that conversation.
This May, let the conversation begin that mental illness is real, treatment works and the hope of recovery is a realistic possibility. Let’s have that conversation and move beyond stigma to reality to make this May the beginning of a whole new world in North Carolina, our nation and beyond in the area of mental health.
That’s one advocate’s perspective for May is Mental Health Month 2008.