|Listen to NAMI Medical Director Ken Duckworth discuss the Arizona tragedy on NPR.|
The tragedy in Arizona raises many more questions than it answers. One key area under discussion is the role of unassessed and untreated psychiatric disorders in the lives of young adults, who are already undergoing multiple life stressors. NPR’s popular program, The Diane Rehm Show, as well as Wisconsin NPR and Minnesota NPR, devoted an hour to this crucial discussion this week. NAMI was well represented in these discussions. Pete Earley, a NAMI father and author of Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness; Lisa Dixon, M.D., leading researcher and NAMI scientific advisory council member; E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., of the Treatment Advocacy Center and I participated in the Diane Rehm NPR show. I encourage you to click on the link to the recording of her show from Jan. 11.
Mr. Earley spoke eloquently about a parent’s conundrum—how hard it can really be to get mental treatment for one’s child, in part due to the fact that our health care system has not learned how to dance gracefully between the demands of privacy versus the demands of personal and public safety. Any catastrophic outcome gives us all pause to reflect what we can learn, and some facts will emerge over time to understand decision points in the Tuscon tragedy. If there is one positive note, it’s that tragedy can sometimes inspire public discourse about an often silent problem—the failure to have an accessible and well resourced mental health system. When we see evidence of how high the stakes can be when it happens that someone in crisis does not receive timely intervention, it can help focus attention on improving culture of help seeking, and the need for diagnosis and treatment. Because treatment does work—it comes down to investment in college, public and private mental health and substance abuse services and to our collective acceptance as a culture that getting help is positive and healthy. Such an investment ends up being less costly—in dollars and heartache—in the long run.
There are likely many things we can learn as the data comes in on this tragedy. In the meantime, I encourage parents and friends of people they are concerned about to follow your gut. When parents find themselves waking up in the early morning, worrying about their child, I recommend that they talk to their loved one and see if they can discuss their experience, and get an evaluation. Maintaining your support and connection with the person is key—if that is impossible then work to get help to understand why. That step has it own resource challenges of course, and this is another hurdle to getting help. Many people trust their general practitioner, who may help or find a psychiatrist or mental health professional who can. He or she can help you figure out what is normal adolescence and what is a mental health problem. This can be the hardest thing you will ever do--getting a loved one help who does not know he or she has a mental illness—and as many as 50 percent do not when living with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This can be one of the most difficult, and more important, acts of love you may ever have to perform. Get support for yourself as you engage in this challenge to find the right path with people you trust or in a NAMI support group. Always see if you can find a way to get your loved help with consent and collaboration. But that can be impossible in some psychiatric situations. If you do need to put someone into an evaluation or treatment against their will, they may not thank you. But you may make a difference.
Call the department of mental health in your state to get information about resources for services. Substance abuse can increase the risk of violence and complicates treatment efforts, regardless of whether someone is living with a mental illness. Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for a substance abuse treatment facility locator. You may have to fight to find a bed if you live in one of the many states where hospital beds are being closed (while more prisons are being built).
There is a saying, “Pain shared is pain halved.” Families and communities need to work together to create a situation where there is no prejudice against seeking mental health treatment or towards people who live with mental illness. Join NAMI—we are the focused advocates for change that can help make this happen. NAMI is one of the key authors of material improvement in the opportunities for people living with mental illness and their families. Our national network represents the change we long to see in our culture and our care systems. The mental health care system needs transparency, and NAMI wants to hand as many service and treatment tools as possible in the hands of individuals and families. We need to have a national conversation about mental illness —both on possible lessons from this tragedy and also for the thousands of young adult Americans who are not encouraged, willing or able to get the help that could promote their recovery. Because treatment often works—if you can get it.