Letter to the Editor: Mental Health Awareness

October is Mental Health Awareness month.  Though one in four people currently live with a mental illness, as specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5), the diagnosis can be highly stigmatizing and even traumatizing.

Major depression, panic disorder and mental health disorders arising from anxiety typically yield more understanding and compassion than other severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

All of these conditions are the result of a lapse in mental health.

The exact cause of mental illness still eludes science and has been narrowed to the complex product of genetic and environmental factors.

The fact is that mental illness can affect anyone.

We are a group of social workers earning our master’s degrees with a specialization in mental health here at Cal State Long Beach.

Our goal is two-fold.

We want to investigate the interplay between mental illness and substance use and implement a community intervention that highlights our research.

After a review of academic literature and a series of interviews among people experiencing mental illness, community members and mental health service providers, we found that more than half of all people with a mental illness will develop a substance dependence in their lifetime.
We observed that community members often overlook the pre-existing mental illness and fail to see drug use as a possible coping mechanism, but rather as the cause of mental deterioration.

We uncovered the constraints that bind agencies when treating a person for whom substance use and mental health are a debilitating issue.

New, recovery-based mental health agencies, designed to assist people who are experiencing psychological distress and an often accompanying substance dependence, need support and funding.

Sadly, many people struggling with the dual diagnosis of a severe mental illness and substance abuse are denied service when seeking treatment.

The mental health agency wants the client to first be clean and sober, and the drug rehab facility first wants the mental illness to be controlled, usually with powerful antipsychotic medication.

Why?

Auditors positioned higher in the mental health bureaucracy will confront agencies as to why their services are not producing a desired, documentable outcome.

The future of agencies is often tied to clients’ compliance with programs; as a result, intake is influenced by the perception of a client’s ability to complete the program successfully and not necessarily by the acute need of the dually diagnosed person.

Currently, the largest public mental health facility is the Los Angeles County Jail, where mental distress is likely to escalate while incarcerated.

Also, ninety percent of suicides are associated with a mental health condition.

People with a severe, but treatable, mental illness die an average of 25 years earlier than those without a mental illness.

Fifty percent of youth with a mental health condition in special education will drop out of school.

We hope for a sweeping change in the way we think about mental health and illness. We need a human shift in attitude, understanding and compassion.

Funds allotted to mental health provisions would make an enormous difference in the entire community.  New mental health agencies would not bring crime, drugs and prostitution but would ameliorate the status quo.  As professionals, our attitudes and voices will shape the future world in which we live and, more importantly, the way we live with one another.

Noemi Alsup, Alisa Aslanyan, Jimmy Cabrera Jr., Melissa Chan, Jenny Moon and Scott Senger are graduate social work students at CSULB.