Mental Illness Awareness Week, from October 7th to 13th, is in full-swing. As an advocacy journalist, I'd like to get the word out that treatment works, and the earlier you get it, the better.
The economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than $100 billion each year in the United States, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). In 2005, National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) researchers found that "half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and that despite effective treatments, there are long delays-sometimes decades-between first onset of symptoms and when people seek and receive treatment." The study also revealed that an untreated mental disorder can lead to a more severe, difficult to treat illness.
The NAMI fact sheet offers hope: the best treatments for serious mental illness today are highly effective; between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments and supports. Yet without treatment, the consequences for the individual include unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, and suicide.
In effect, there's a two-tier system of people who get treatment and regain their lives, and others whose delayed treatment or failure to get help causes suffering and pain. Why do people often not get treatment or do so only after 10 or 20 years? It's not because of stigma. The prime reason could be that a significant number of people with schizophrenia don't believe they're sick, and so refuse medication. The lack of insight is a symptom of the illness that isn't logical, so it's hard for outsiders to comprehend how someone could be sick and not realize something's out of the ordinary. Also, those who repeatedly go off their meds are less likely to bounce back after each new episode.
Numerous studies, found at www.psychlaws.org/MedicalResources/index.htm, prove that early intervention results in a better outcome. According to the British Journal of Psychiatry, researchers have suggested that the critical period for the development of chronic impairment is approximately one year. From the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry study authors assert: "There may be an active pathologic process that occurs during periods of acute psychosis which, if not counteracted, can produce persisting morbidity and impair patients' ability to respond to treatment. If so, then the early use of antipsychotic medications could be integral to preventing relapses and thus subsequent deterioration in patients with schizophrenia."
To wrap up this blog entry focused on Mental Illness Awareness Week, I'll say that education is the key resource in combating the disease. In every schizophrenia memoir I've read, the person failed to get immediate treatment and developed a more chronic form. Breaking the silence is critical, and it goes beyond disclosing our illness to others. It involves knowing the warning signs and what to look for. This is something every mother or father should learn and be aware of as soon as possible. The World Fellowship for Schizophrenia and Allied Disorders web site lists such markers at http://www.world-schizophrenia.org/publications/20-warnings.html. Pay attention if someone you love exhibits any of these tendencies; don't shrug it off as standard teenage moodiness. Because, if the studies are accurate in that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, it's not premature to believe that new moms and dads should be given this information along with baby blankets. Better to have the information and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
Tips we can all use to raise awareness of mental illness:
1. Speak out about your experiences and treatment and what worked for you if you're in remission and doing well.
2. Choose schizophrenia or bipolar or other mental health topics to write about for a school paper.
3. Participate in NAMI Walks fundraisers throughout the year and in May-National Mental Health Month.
4. Join NAMI and Mental Health America (MHA) in providing outreach to schools, churches and other organizations whose members need to hear this information.
5. Volunteer for the above non-profits and others that seek to educate the general public about mental illnesses, if you want to do community service and are unsure what cause to choose.
6. Drop info selectively into casual conversation, such as "Did you see the latest Oprah show? I liked the segment on bipolar. They were such courageous people to tell their stories."
7. Dare to set someone straight if he or she makes an ignorant comment about someone who has schizophrenia or another condition.
Published On: October 11, 2007