The suicide of Robin Williams has inspired another national dialogue about mental illness. If a man who was so talented, so admired, so successful could also be so depressed to the point where he would take his own life, it reminds us we need to be more aware of the difficulties facing people in our own lives, to help them get the help they need.
The stories raise awareness of something that is common knowledge among mental health professionals but comes as a shock to others. As a report in The New York Times put it, "More than 70 percent of all suicides in the United States are white men, most of them in their middle years, and many take their lives in the wake of some loss, whether professional, personal or physical."
This impulse to help more people get more care is reminiscent of the one that greeted the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut a year and a half ago. If a troubled young man had received the treatment he needed, perhaps so many youngsters and their brave teachers might not have been shot down.
And that came just six months after a man who had been receiving psychiatric treatment killed a dozen and injured scores more in a shooting in a Colorado movie theater.
Mental illness is hard to diagnose and hard to treat. No one ever argues that we need less access, but few in a position to make a difference have confronted the reality of just how hard it can be to get treatment. Hospitals close inpatient mental health units, states cut budgets. It all gets lost in the shuffle.
Scary statistics surface from time to time in news stories. Last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told Congress that 55 percent of the nation's 3,100 counties had no practicing psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers. The report blamed budget cuts and an increase in those leaving the profession.
For those fortunate enough to live in a community that still had practicing mental health professionals, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that many are in such demand that they no longer accept new patients and many do not accept private insurance.
The Healthcare Association of New York State found last year that 58 percent of hospitals and health systems had a shortage of psychiatrists, with nearly 40 percent of those still on staff close to retirement. Nationally, the Association of American Medical Colleges found that 57 percent of practicing psychiatrists are at least 55 years old.
The well-known, oft-talked-about stigma of mental illness shows up in other ways as well with unemployment rates running as high as 80 percent and with jails finding that half to two-thirds of those being locked up on any given day have mental health issues, many of them serious and untreated.
Each sad or tragic story leads to the same statistics and the same conclusion. While people can help those in their lives cope with mental illness, the matching public commitment of resources has not come close to keeping up with the needs.
Copyright The Times Herald-Record of Middletown. Reprinted with permission.