THE BLOG

The State of Mental Illness in America: Crying for a Cure

02/23/2015 01:52 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

The gut-wrenching image recently posted in the Miami Herald of the mother of 25-year-old Levar Hall, crying and screaming in pain to an audience of two over-sized teddy bears huddled together in stillness, is a deplorable image. The onset of crisis affecting those with mental illness impacts countless individuals and families, as they are confronted by gaping holes in our nation's mental health care delivery system.

According to the Miami Herald, Levar Hall, 25 years old, was shot by police Miami Gardens Police for brandishing a broomstick and not following officer's instructions and commands. According to the Miami Herald, Ms. Daniels repeatedly told police her son was schizophrenic and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was just discharged from a psychiatric hospital the week before and needed to go back. The Police Chief of Miami Gardens, Stephen Johnson, insists that "...the officers did their best." It was, by all accounts, a situation out of control. As reported, the incident will be turned over for investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Another tragedy, another family destroyed.

If this was any other disease, I am convinced that a president would have declared war on serious brain/neurological disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder decades ago. But, this isn't any medical problem. A medical problem, where centuries-old prejudices and discrimination have been permitted to not only trump medical science, but sedate the noble ideals, values and courage of nation which prides itself on standing up to a major public health threat. I have written before about the intersection of civil rights, public health emergencies and the failure of governmental action. In a prior Huffington Post blog I recount HBO's brilliant film, The Normal Heart, which depicts horrendous events surrounding the early emergence of HIV/AIDS in America. Which, but for the unrelenting determination by gay activists and leaders of the organization of the Gay Men's Health Crisis, to compel governmental action, mobilizes a national public health response. You see, the linkage between prejudice and public health is not a new scenario.

In a groundbreaking op-ed article, Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, President and CEO of the Brain Behavior and Research Foundation, describes new technological breakthroughs in 3D high resolution brain imaging and new discoveries in biological causes of depression. In his article, Dr. Borenstein also confirms a tragic truth that "...the care and treatment of people with mental illness is one of the great civil-rights issues of our time." He acknowledges what we know, but rarely say: "...people with psychiatric illnesses go untreated due to continuing discrimination... which impedes progress."

I believe, it is time for bold action. Declare a war on discrimination to find a cure. Now that we know the truth, I submit there is both an ethical and moral obligation to correct the injustices of the past and take that leap forward. Take a moment and consider President Harry S. Truman's words in his declaration to find a cure for Polio in 1946, where he called upon all Americans "...to do everything possible to combat [the disease]." President Truman's declaration of war against this deadly disease galvanized a nation. The urgency of his message to the nation left no space for stigma and prejudice to impede medical progress. As stated in the NPR report, within a decade of President Truman's declaration of war against Polio on April 12, 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk and his research team at the University of Pittsburg released the first successful vaccine for polio.

It is time to empower a nation and mobilize all technological and neurological research resources on a national and global level to find the big fix for mental illness. We must declare old paradigms of institutionalization and incarceration failed policies, which drive crushing economic costs and perpetuate stigma and prejudice. A condition which churns crisis. Big ideas are coming. Perhaps from Stanford Neurosciences Institute, engaged in its new initiative called NeuroCircuit. Or through research teams funded by President Obama's BRAIN Initiative and led by The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. Or as stated in the film, The Imitation Game, about British mathematician Alan Turing and his discovery to decrypt the Nazi code: "Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine."

The question raised by Newsweek contributor, Alexander Nazaran, "When will Mental Illness Finally Yield to Science?" is not the only question. An alternative question is why have we not stood up to demand a cure? We must imagine the unimaginable and Truman did. With the launch of The Kennedy Center for Mental Health Research and Policy, (part of The Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine) comes a new energy, poised to tackle the civil rights struggles of the past. I propose it is beyond time to demand a cure for mental illness, even if finding solutions takes time -- America is running out of tears.