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Saturday, Feb 23 2013 11:00 PM

Cast realistic light on mental illness

By The Bakersfield Californian

Imagine, if only for a moment, that the mass murders at Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., never happened. Now, let's have a discussion about mental illness. Let's ask the media, both local and national, to report on that discussion, absent the framework of those two horrifying events.

What we would likely come away with is a picture of mental illness much more representative of what this collection of diseases really is, who is affected, and the impact on the lives of those afflicted, from patient to family and from workplace productivity to social networks.

Sandy Hook and Aurora were acts of horrific violence committed by people with mental illness. But acts of violence are committed by a small percentage of the mentally ill. Gun violence crimes are even fewer.

Does the sudden direction of this national discussion, largely attributing gun violence to the mentally ill, do society a disservice? Will it drive those suffering from mental illness further into the darkness, away from the help they need? Away from services that are available, and treatments that in many cases are effective?

We think so.

The facts are these: Mental illness is a disease of the brain, and in many cases is treatable, just like other diseases that afflict the body. The overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent. People with mental illness are involved in about 5 percent of violent crimes but, conversely, are about 11 times more likely than the general population to be victims of violent crime.

Most of us know someone with a mental illness -- bipolar disorder, severe depression or schizophrenia, to name three of the most common. They are our neighbors, our co-workers, our service providers. In 2011, an estimated 20 percent of adults reported having some form of mental illness, and 5 percent reported a serious mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In most cases those illnesses are eminently treatable -- a reality we see daily in Kern County. Nearly 25,000 people received treatment from county mental health service providers in fiscal 2010-11, according to the Kern County Behavioral Health Board's 2011 report (substance abuse figures excluded). The impact on quality of life and taxpayer cost savings are evident. Consider the impacts on two compromised local populations. Incarceration days among inmates receiving mental health services dropped from nearly 18,000 to just under 1,400. The rate of homelessness dropped from nearly 44,000 days to 7,268.

In the general population, both Kern County and state figures show satisfaction levels in the 90 percent range for patients and families of patients who have obtained mental health services, measured over an eight-year period.

Yet the stigma attached to mental illness remains staggering. A recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine paints a clear and disturbing picture of that reality -- and it sheds light on why so many are reluctant to seek help. The report revealed that 46 percent of respondents believe those with serious mental illness are more dangerous than others. Seventy-one percent say they would not want to work with someone who has a mental illness, and 67 percent say they do not want to live near a neighbor with mental illness.

That attitude is reminiscent of common perceptions associated with other diseases and conditions -- stigmatization based on fear and lack of knowledge. Once upon a time, cancer and AIDS were taboo topics for public discourse, rarely written about or discussed outside of clinical settings. Likewise the developmentally disabled -- mentally retarded in the vernacular of the day. They, too, were hidden away from society, not just in literal terms, but in media and society.

When media and society began to look honestly at the real circumstances of those once-stigmatized conditions, when they began to put faces to the faceless and confront their own misconceptions, things began to change for the better. That's where we should be in 2013 with mental illness.

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