Mental health issues are too poorly understood

In the wake of recent public mass shootings, people have increased their questioning of the mental health care system in America. Where should we put the mentally ill? How should we treat them? Would helping them reduce the frequency of violent crime?

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older have a mental illness today.

After many state-run mental hospitals closed during the de-institutionalization movement of the 1970’s and 60’s, many people have resorted to unequipped halfway houses, nursing homes, and even worse, prisons. According to a study conducted by the U.S Department of Justice in 2006, 56% of inmates at state prisons have mental illness.

The mentally ill aren’t a burden to society. They do not deserve to be dumped in a prison for petty crimes or to roam by themselves on the street.

A study by the American Journal of Psychiatry also says that only about four percent of violent crimes in the U.S are committed by the mentally ill, so having a psychiatric disorder does not mean someone is a danger to society.

Mental illness should not be stigmatized; it is as worthy of understanding as any other medical issue.

People should learn to recognize signs of mental illness in their peers and family. Health and wellness classes should teach students how to approach a friend who may need help and how to proceed.

Signs of mental illness include extreme changes in mood such as anger outbursts, a sudden fall in grades or social withdrawal, according to Mental Health America. Since most mental illnesses are evident by or before the early twenties, teachers should also be trained to notice signs of students who need help.

In mid-January, the U.S Department of Health & Human Services issued a message to “Our Nation’s Health Care Providers.” The Director of the Office for Civil Rights Leon Rodriguez wanted to remind them that “… the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule does not prevent your ability to disclose necessary information about a patient to law enforcement, family members of the patient, or other persons, when you believe the patient presents a serious danger to himself or other people.”

An idea similar to this should be extended to allow concerned family members or friends of any potentially ill person, dangerous or not, to easily reach well-staffed health care providers. Accessibility is key, and with enough options out there to suit the wide range of mentally ill people, prisons will no longer be their only destination.