Mental Illness, a Disease of the Mind

This past Friday and Saturday I attended the National Association on Mental Illness Tennessee statewide conference and was privileged to meet many amazing people working in that arena. Just as the death penalty faces a plethora of misconceptions, mental illness advocates must also step over those hurdles. I remember a time when I believed that mental illness was overblown and that medication to treat the affliction were simply made to induce a life of semi-comatose happiness. What I know now, and that I hope all people know are some of the facts I will list below:

Fact 1: Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders. They cannot be overcome through “will power” and are not related to a person’s “character” or intelligence.

In other words, these folks have a disease. Something is physiologically attacking their brain causing them to become mentally ill, i.e., sick in the brain. The brain is without a doubt, the most complex organ in the human body, it contains some one hundred billion neurons, which are capable of electrical and chemical communication with tens of thousands of other nerve cells. Nerve cells rely on some quadrillion synaptic connections for their communications. Notice that their are many approximations when discussing the brain because some things in the human body, we simply do not fully understand. Quite obviously, when you are dealing with something that is complex and has many unknowns, many problems may arise.

Now, although I am tempted to make a clever analogy between the anatomy of the brain and the death penalty, I do believe that a more poignant statement is that mental illness is a serious issue and one that is being mistreated in the realm of our application of the death penalty.

Fact 2: Mental disorders fall along a continuum of severity. Even though mental disorders are widespread in the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion–about 6 percent, or 1 in 17 Americans–who suffer from a serious mental illness. It is estimated that mental illness affects 1 in 5 families in America.

This is a very important bit of knowledge here. We have a problem that is concentrated on a small population of Americans. The mentally ill population has every right to say that their population is being marginalized, especially when it comes to access–access to employment, medication, etc. Their affliction unfortunately aligns them with other marginalized populations, e.g., the poor, minorities, mentally retarded. We have many Davids in Goliath’s world all seeking for an improvement to their current condition. However, instead of improvement, we live in a society that seems to provide the perfect injustice to these minority groups. I used that term “perfect injustice” many times while at the conference talking to folks. What I meant by it was that to me, in a society that seeks to provide justice, to help the tired, hungry, weary, poor, the mentally ill or retarded, the minority races– how can this society execute a calculated number of these marginalized populations? Instead, we dole out perfect injustice. These human beings on our death row were poor, they received little or bad education, they had horrific childhoods, they were mentally ill, mentally retarded, they committed a crime, they received counsel with much to be desired, they were ratted out on a deal, prosecutors withheld evidence, new evidence was withheld, judges were influenced, ideologies reinforced. What is the end result to this perfect injustice? The execution of a human being.

Fact 3: Without treatment, the consequences of mental illness for the individual and society are staggering: unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and wasted lives; The economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than 100 billion dollars each year in the United States.

This one is important. Why are we such a reactionary society? We know all of the problems, Americans are not stupid. We have the best Universities in the world, we are a society built upon the rock solid foundation of academia. Mental illness is a problem that when treated progressively will produce positive results. I like to analogize problems with washing dishes. If you’re done eating dinner putting dishes in the sink without washing them will only cause the food to harden and thus tougher to clean, especially if it’s lasagna. We cannot allow these policies to exist and fester. Who knows how much the death penalty is costing this society when it could be used towards victims families, law enforcement, treatment, education, and so much more.

Last statement from NAMI: Stigma erodes confidence that mental disorders are real, treatable health conditions. We have allowed stigma and a now unwarranted sense of hopelessness to erect attitudinal, structural, and financial barriers to effective treatment and recovery. It is time to take these barriers down.

Well said NAMI, well said indeed.

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