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It’s time to shift focus of mental illness toward intervention, treatment

Monday, May 22, 2017

Mention mental illness, and far too often, the focus quickly turns to its tragic outcomes that play out in courtrooms, jailhouses and graveyards.

Headlines often come to mind of sensational cases such as that of a mother with bipolar disorder who admitted killing her two toddler children. We’ve also come to acknowledge mental illness as a major entry route for many casualties of the menacing opiate epidemic. And we’ve learned that anxiety disorders sparked by bullying are behind much of the rise in youth suicide in recent years.

In these and many other cases, awareness, intervention and treatment could have prevented the resulting tragic outcomes. As the nation marks Mental Health Awareness Month throughout May, it is an opportune time to shift focus. To start, we must lessen the stigma surrounding mental-health disorders as one means to increase survival rates.

The scope of mental illness in the United States, after all, is massive. One in 5 American adults experiences a mental illness in any given year, and 1 in 25 deals with a serious potentially life-threatening psychiatric illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

At first blush, those rates may strike some observers as surprisingly high. On closer examination, however, many of those impacted by mental illness prefer to suffer in silence. Nationally, 57 percent of adults with mental disorders received absolutely no treatment or help for fear of increasing the stigma, a stigma that too often ushers in prejudice, mistrust and even violence.

Of course, lack of treatment for mental illness – like lack of treatment for any physical malady – invites only worsening symptoms and potentially destructive outcomes.


As Tracy Plouck, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, told members of the Ohio General Assembly earlier this year, “We should not wait until people reach serious difficulty before providing needed care.”

To her credit, Plouck has worked hard to create strong public and public-private partnerships to help inspire more widespread treatment and greater healing throughout the state.

In our corner of Ohio, such initiatives have shown great promise. Under the guidance of Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board director Duane J. Piccirilli, support and re-entry programs to help mentally ill inmates at the Mahoning County jail have flourished. The county agency also has partnered with Mercy Health to provide safe rooms in hospital emergency departments for those patients experiencing behavioral-health crises.

MCMHRB also has partnered with the Mahoning County Board of Health to promote Project DAWN (Deaths Avoided With Naloxone) by providing funding and access to the life-saving medication first-responders use to revive victims of opiate overdoses.

Despite these and other positive and promising initiatives, Ohio still has room to improve. In a nationwide analysis by Mental Health America, the Buckeye State ranks a less-than-noteworthy 24th in overall mental health, as measured by the prevalence of mental disorders and by the ease of access to care and treatment facilities.

According to that survey, the lower a state’s ranking, the higher the likelihood for these unsavory outcomes: high child maltreatment, low graduation rates, high levels of poverty and homelessness, high unemployment and a greater propensity toward violence.

Clearly then, identifying and treating mental illnesses early on can forestall or prevent a slew of personal and societal adversities. Toward that end, many have vital roles to play.

Our county boards of Mental Health must continue to seek out strategies for effective intervention and funding to support optimal care.

Our state Legislature must recognize the adverse spillover effect of mental illness on a host of the state’s most pressing priorities, not the least of which is taming the monstrous opiate epidemic. It must then lend its support in crafting public policy that most effectively addresses those needs.

Finally, we as individuals must replace stigmatizing attitudes with compassion and a sincere will to help.

With cooperation from all fronts, we’re hopeful that the heavy toll that mental illness extracts on lives and communities can be significantly lightened.