A “crazy” aunt who everyone jokes about at family gatherings. A cousin who believes the government is stalking her or a teenage friend, whose world is so dark that he kills himself in his parent’s garage.
Mental illness, no matter the severity, has touched most of us in one way or another. In my family, it wasn’t talked about when I was a kid. My aunt’s behavior – the highs and lows were just assumed to be normal – was talked about in a round about way, as in, “Do you know what your crazy aunt did this time?”
Little did I know that she had been taking, or not taking, medication for years.
The embarrassment or shame of talking about mental illness would be somewhat understandable if it was rare. But according to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than a quarter of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, translating to more than 60 million people.
Even though mental disorders are widespread in the population, about 6 percent suffer from a serious mental illness.
And yet most lawmakers and residents shrug when it comes time to actually helping those who most need it. Gov. Jerry Brown’s elimination of the Department of Mental Health to help reduce the budget deficit was just the latest sign.
While California taxpayers approved the 2004 “millionaire’s tax,” Proposition 63, which was intended to help the mentally ill, including early treatment prevention, the actual benefit of the plan and how the money is being used has come under scrutiny.
As the Associated Press noted, the state, which has cut 21 percent, or $764.8 million, from mental health spending since 2009, has used tens of millions of dollars raised by Prop. 63 on “wellness” programs such as horseback riding for teens and yoga classes for city workers.
“In the law, the money was to be focused on people with mental illness, not little boutique programs that made the county personnel feel good,” Peter Mantas, former chairman of the Contra Costa County Mental Health Commission, told the AP. “The Department of Mental Health went astray significantly by doing what they did.”
Mantas resigned in 2010 over the issue.
The horrific shooting in Connecticut has placed focus, understandably, on gun control. But it also should throw a spotlight on how we deal with those grappling with mental illness as well as their caregivers. No one yet knows if the shooter, who killed himself, had a mental illness, and some people falsely believe that there is a connection between mental illness and violent behavior.
But none of that should matter. Funding of early prevention and treatment for those who have mental illness works and is evidence based. Let’s try to not forget those loved ones who are depending on us.