Changing How We Look at Mental Illness and Changing Lives

One in five children in the US suffers from mental illness, but less than 25% of those children actually receive mental health services. That’s absolutely terrifying, especially if you consider all the kids who have other psychological struggles but don’t meet diagnostic criteria for a psychological disorder. How many children then aren’t getting the help they so desperately need? What kind of effect is that having on the future generations of workers, leaders, innovators, educators, and generally just society? As a future clinical psychologist, this is shocking. How has the field failed? Don’t get me wrong, there have been great innovations and huge strides in understanding mechanisms of psychological disorders and developing treatments that alleviate some of the suffering, so why aren’t these kids getting helped?
The Problems

  • The stigma associated with mental health problems and treatment is huge. The public has a very limited understanding of what psychological distress is. The media is flooded with stories about people with all sorts of mental issues doing terribly harmful things, like Jared Loughner who shot Arizona House Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others, murdering six. This is the poor and incomplete representation of mental illness that we get every day. As a society, we equate mental illness with the crazy criminals we see in the news. To some extent, we fault individuals for their own issues, attributing it to a lack of will power or just weakness or bad character. The stigma and blame actually keep people from understanding how prevalent mental disorders actually are and seeing how individuals suffering from them may not be at fault. Mental illness is not just Jared Loughner or Seung-Hui Cho the Virginia Tech shooter. It is also people struggling with severe depression leading to isolation or those with overwhelming social anxiety who fear making friends, among other things.
  • People don’t know how to identify signs of psychological distress. Disruptive behavior disorders, like ADHD or conduct disorder, are noticed because they interfere in the classroom. Other disorders, like anxiety, can even be functional to an extent, leading to high academic achievement, but can also become so overwhelming to the point of a complete loss the ability to concentrate and learn.
  •  People don’t know where to get help or what kind of help is best when they figure out that there’s a problem. If they figure out what kind of help they need, financial burdens may make it hard for them to actually get help, especially in the age of managed care and reimbursement problems from insurance companies.
  • Researchers aren’t doing enough to get their awesome treatments out there. Tens of millions of dollars are spent each year on developing and testing treatments that have the potential to change lives. Lots of published research trials support their efficacy, but still, they’re not getting out into the clinics and hospitals and to the people that need them most.
  • The economic crisis and lack of advocacy from the public are leading to huge funding cuts for community clinics and research. All of the other problems contribute to this issue too. If people don’t believe that mental health is important and don’t believe that psychological treatments might work, they won’t push for funding to support the community clinics or increase research efforts to figure out how treatments can work outside of research labs.

What can we do to fix it?

  • As a member of the general public, get informed about mental health issues. Learn what’s going on through websites, newspapers, or other venues. The New York Times has been running a great series called “Lives Restored” about people struggling with severe mental illness who have managed to positively change the trajectories of their lives.
  • Spread the word about mental health needs. Talk to your friends about it as you learn. Share informative links with members of your community.
  • If you are gateway personnel, like a teacher or school counselor or pediatrician, who is regularly in touch with children and families, learn the signs and symptoms of mental illness.
  • As a mental health professional, psychologist, social worker, or whatever, spread the word about mental health services. Talk to gateway personnel about available resources, either online, books, or clinics, to help them refer those struggling in the right directions.
  • Mental health professionals should also keep up on the literature. What is the research showing to be effective? How can that work be applied to inform the work you do?
  • As researchers and treatment developers, form partnerships with schools and community clinics to understand their systems and needs. Work with them to integrate your research findings into their framework. Offer training and supervision opportunities.
  • As a community, talk to government officials about mental health needs. Push for funding for that work. Really make a case for how important it is to identify struggles early and give people the skills to deal with them.
  • As an individual, just try to alter how you think about mental illness and how you talk about it. The homeless man on the corner is not a schizophrenic. He is a man struggling with schizophrenia. See people as people who are suffering, not as a disorder.

There are a million other problems and probably even more solutions. We are at a crossroads. The need is great and it’s finally our chance to impact the outcome, whatever our small role may be.


As per Alexandra’s comment below, here are some informational links so you can learn more!


Newspapers and other media…

The New York Times Health Section – has some research studies and other articles about mental health

The LA Times Mental Health Section – also has some interesting articles in this section specifically dedicated to mental health

The Washington Post Health & Science Section – some more articles about mental health and health in general

The Atlantic Monthly – also has a mental health and brain section

The Wall Street Journal – more than just about business and finance (broke the Tiger Mom story)


Mental health advocacy groups….

National Alliance on Mental Illness – lots of information about mental illness and ways you can get involved in raising public awareness

Mental Health America – another advocacy group with tips and info


Professional organizations…

The American Psychological Association – broad range info on mental illness and a database if you’re looking to find a therapist

The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies – a good reference for cognitive behavioral therapies and finding therapists who practice that


Government-related things…

The National Institute of Mental Health – a division of the National Institute of Health that funds a lot of mental health research, though Congress has been cutting that funding and NIMH is increasingly moving more towards biological models and ignoring the need for increased treatment and knowledge dissemination efforts

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – another government division specifically geared towards prevention and treatment of mental disorders with a suicide hotline, a 24 hour therapy referral line, and all sorts of other useful info