Ending the Silence on Mental Illness

05/20/2013 10:42 am ET | Updated Jul 20, 2013

As the dean of the George Washington (GW) University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS), I often walk to my day's appointments in the District of Columbia. Not unlike any other large urban area, I often pass men and women who seem to be suffering from severe mental illness. Like many of us, I have a close family member with mental illness. So I am aware of the difficult life journeys that may have led them to this point.

That is why I applaud President Obama's budget proposal, which calls for $235 million in new mental health initiatives, including $130 million for a program that would help train teachers and adults to recognize the first signs of mental illness in children -- and refer them to get help.

The push to provide young people with better care for mental disorders couldn't come at a better time. This month, the nation celebrates "May Is Mental Health Month," a campaign that calls attention to the fact that a staggering 1 in 5 Americans suffered from some form of mental illness during 2011.

We know that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness start by age 14, and three-quarters by age 24. Research also tells us there are long delays between the onset of symptoms and treatment. Those lags can increase the risk of lifelong consequences resulting from missed opportunities to treat children and teens and support their transition to adulthood.

A new study of 11 states by the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools (CHHCS), a nonpartisan policy center based at SPHHS, suggests that system-wide shortfalls in mental health care have left many American children and young adults without adequate treatment. Fewer than 10 percent of children who needed mental health services got them on a timely basis and less than half of those diagnosed with a serious mental disorder ever got treatment from a specialty mental health provider.

The gaps in the nation's mental health care system are widely attributed to a lack of insurance coverage, a shortage in trained mental health professionals, inadequate research and the overreliance on quick-fix solutions for complex conditions.

The truth is we still do not understand the complicated mix of genetics, environmental triggers and other factors that underlie the development of many brain disorders, including mental illness. President Obama's BRAIN initiative, a partnership between government, private industry and scientists, will map neural networks in the brain and promises to provide fundamental knowledge to help pave the way to a better understanding of how to prevent and treat mental illness.

With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the GW study points to some innovative solutions that might provide children with better access to treatment in the here and now. For example, West Virginia has a state-wide system that uses schools to identify children who are in trouble -- and get them into treatment earlier. Massachusetts has expanded access to children's mental health screenings; Minnesota is working to reduce the shortages of mental health professionals in rural areas of the state.

We need more innovative solutions coming out of the states but the new federal initiative will help strengthen our system so that no child gets left out.

Teachers, parents, public health professionals and members of the college community must also join in this movement. For example, colleges must step up their efforts to identify and provide help to students who are showing signs of depression and other mental disorders. Every year about 1,100 college students commit suicide, a public health problem that will be addressed by George Washington University experts and students at a Congressional briefing to be hosted on May 22 by Rep. Grace Napolitano.

Prevention and fast access to care is one key to preventing such tragedies. This semester, the George Washington University Counseling Center created a system to ensure that at-risk students can get care right away, providing walk-in appointments for students who want to speak to a counselor. The center also supports a crisis line that students can call to speak to a trained mental health counselor.

The truth is that from the college campus to the workplace, we are all members of a national and increasingly global community. We must all learn the signs of depression and other mental disorders and reach out to someone in trouble. We can all weigh into the national debate on mental health care. And we must all address the shame and stigma that have kept mental illness cloaked in secrecy and have made it difficult for people to speak out about these common conditions and to get help. One voice at a time, we can build a better mental health care system, one that ensures that we all stay healthy and thrive.

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

For more by Lynn R. Goldman, click here.

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