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The Real Conversation About Mental Health

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I have been ruminating -- some might say obsessing -- over the tragedies in Connecticut for days now.

I am a mother of a young child who cannot fathom going through anything close to what this community and all of its families are going through.

I am someone who has had more experiences with guns in my 31 years of living than I've ever wanted.

I am also an advocate. And I am torn. Since Friday's unspeakable tragedies, I have seen countless stories and comments about how finally this may be the impetus we need to start talking about mental health and mental illness as a society. I agree, but believe it's for the wrong reasons.

Yes, we need to start talking about mental illness and mental health and the disproportionate number of people who suffer without getting treatment. Yes, we need to talk about what kind of support is out there, barriers to accessing that support, and what untreated mental illness can do. Yes, we need to talk about mental health as much as we talk about other health issues. But we need to start talking about these things not because of a lone man who caused unbelievable pain to our nation, but because one in four American adults live with a diagnosable mental health disorder like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress every single day. And we need to start talking about it because of the approximately 100 people in our country every day who feel so hopeless and helpless that they take their own lives, leaving families and communities in anguish.

The fact is, people with mental health disorders are often far more likely to hurt themselves than to hurt someone else. Self-injury, addiction, and thoughts of suicide are all too real for far too many people. Incidentally, people with mental illness are also more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator. Because we don't talk about these issues, people suffer alone. Families suffer alone. Our community, our friends, and our colleagues suffer alone. We must start a conversation about mental illness, but this conversation must be about the suffering we aren't willing to acknowledge, and not about the violence we tragically but infrequently see. People who are struggling, with whatever they are struggling, need to know that it's okay to talk about what they're feeling and must be able to get the help they need.

I fear that the conversation about mental illness as it relates to the Connecticut tragedies will cause people who may have been on the verge of reaching out for the support they need to retreat. I fear that people who are struggling on the inside will struggle even more so alone. I fear that we will look at each other differently, creating an unrealistic chasm between "us" and "them" and wanting to diagnose everyone we see as potentially being violent. If one in four of us struggles, there is no us, and there is no them, and we all need to be there for each other.

It is time for us to really talk about mental health. It's time for us to really acknowledge that for all of us, our mental health is part of our overall health. It's also time for us to really acknowledge that too many people suffer with mental health disorders and that the vast majority of them will suffer alone, and no one will ever know. It's time for us to recognize that the mental health care system needs to be improved so that everyone who needs it can get the care they deserve. And it's time for us to recognize that we need to change the conversation about mental health, so everyone feels okay reaching out for what they need.

If we're going to talk about mental health in the wake of this tragedy, lets talk about the care and compassion the children and all of the families involved will need as they grow up and learn to live in the shadows of their losses.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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