On any given day in almost any metropolitan area, the news reports highlight an act of violence, citing in the course of broadcasting that the alleged perpetrator was believed to have been mentally ill, addicted to drugs, and/or homeless. This is the trifecta of social lenses through which virtually all incomprehensible, criminal acts are filtered on the way to uncovering motivation and grounds for prosecution. Unfortunately, they are also the criteria against which society stereotypes and blames the majority of violent acts, casting the world of mental disorders and those who live with them in a terrifying light with far-reaching stigma attachments that divide and cripple communities. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a perfect time of year for thawing the deep freeze of erroneous perception and embracing the warmth of understanding and new growth.
Interestingly, when you Google “Mental Health”, there are two items worthy of note right away: firstly, in less than five seconds, the search returns 1,060,000,000 results, and secondly, in all of the top listings, it isn’t even the words “Mental Health” that show up in the sponsored, first-page options, but “Mental Disorder(s)”. The assumption appears to be that mental health, rather than a state of being that requires routine care as much as physical health, is instead essentially unattainable except by first and possibly forever shackling oneself to mental disorder and defect. This is far from the case. Defined by the World Health Organization, mental health is “… a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stress of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”; to varying degrees, these very words can also describe the conditions under which a great many people with mental illness live, every day.
One in five American adults – 18.5% annually – experience mental health challenges, and many who have one disorder are likely to struggle with more than one. While the largest percentage of those living with mental illness are living and working in and among the general population, the statistics affecting the homeless and imprisoned are dramatic. Just over a quarter of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness, and almost half of these suffer from mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders categorized as severe. These numbers do not account for the unreported populations living on the streets beyond the walls of shelters. One fifth of state and local adult prisoners have a recent history of at least one mental health condition, and for youth (ages 8-17) in the juvenile justice system, the number of those struggling with mental health disorders leaps to 70%, 20% of which are considered serious. Of all the reported cases of mental illness, regardless of living conditions or incarceration status, and for various reasons, only 41% of adults and 50% of children receive needed mental healthcare services each year. However valuable, statistics like these are measurements, used to funnel individuals into homogenous, categorizable groups that effectively compartmentalize mental illnesses, but do not address the very human, very personal cases of those struggling with them. That is the vibrant, compassionate work of loved ones, community members, and mental healthcare professionals who hold space for and interact most intimately with those among us who struggle with mental health problems.
More than lack of access or the high fiscal cost of seeking mental healthcare services, the greater barriers to care are more socioculturally-based: the endurance of myths about mental health, ignorance of facts, and most polarizingly, the propagation of stigma. Stigma is “a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart from others. When a person is labeled by their illness, they are no longer seen as an individual, but as a part of a stereotypical group.” The mythos of mental illness, exacerbated by the media, lends false credence to stigmatization against those who suffer with mental disorders, painting them broadly as violent, unpredictable, fundamentally flawed drug addicts who can’t hold a job and can’t be helped. Adjusting the lens to a more close-up focus reveals some very powerful truths: most people with mental health problems are no more violent than anyone else, are just as productive in school and the workplace as everyone else, and recover fully from their mental disorders with proper care and treatment. The greater challenge, then, is in acknowledging and dismantling the damaging effects of stigmatization; not only systemically, but individually. This is the mission of organizations like La Ventana, which utilizes innovative methods to create safe spaces for individuals and families to assess mental health and substance use disorders, devise individualized plans for treatment, and integrate recovery maintenance into life following treatment.
By focusing first on the individual’s unique symptoms and following careful evaluation of underlying causes, La Ventana’s exceptional team of holistically-minded professionals are able to tailor a treatment plan as unique as each client. Our staff is fluent in devising and tuning coping skills and real-time tools that incorporate and elevate the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional facets of each client, to fully support their healing process. In cases where there is an intersection of mental health symptoms and substance use disorders, La Ventana employs a host of effective, concurrent therapies to support, guide, and educate each client safely and lovingly toward a successful recovery. By engaging and validating the experience of family members as well, La Ventana’s specialized treatment programs not only provide healing and strength to the dynamic that binds the closest relationships someone struggling with mental illness longs to maintain, but also enrich the greater surrounding community with properly educated advocates. Strong advocates are far more likely to step out of shameful isolation and confidently protect their loved ones from the ravages of stigma, and model for the greater community how to support those around them who struggle with mental disorders.
During this month of Mental Health Awareness, let’s take the opportunity to talk openly about what mental health is – and what it isn’t. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give each other, and especially those who struggle with mental health disorders is our educated willingness to embrace equality between mental and physical well-being, and to actively, mindfully choose empowerment over shame. Looking at our loved ones, neighbors, and coworkers through lenses that focus on our ability to be compassionate makes our communities more human, resilient, and healthy – one member at a time.