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My 'Top 10' Facts to Know About Schizophrenia, and How You Can Make a Difference

02/04/2015 03:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

Before my son's diagnosis with schizophrenia, I knew very little about mental illness. Here are 10 important facts that I think everyone should know and one way to help those who are suffering from mental illness.

1. My son is not alone. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, over 2 million American adults live with schizophrenia, over 6 million live with bipolar disorder and over 14 million live with major depression.

2. Approximately 10 percent of Americans suffering from schizophrenia commit suicide, a sobering reality for families with loved ones who have been diagnosed.

3. There is currently no medical test to diagnose schizophrenia, demonstrating that we have much more to learn about the brain. Without such a test, doctors must rely on observations to come to a diagnosis.

4. Symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations, delusions, thought disorders, poor executive functioning, and the inability to sustain everyday activity.

5. Given our limited understanding of the brain, the antipsychotic medications that were developed in the 1950s continue to be used to treat schizophrenia today. Another wave of antipsychotics was introduced in the 1990s, reducing certain adverse side effects of medication but not improving its efficacy. Drug treatments for schizophrenia may help with some, but not necessarily all, of its symptoms.

6. Schizophrenia has a similar occurrence rate between males and females, and it generally strikes males in their late teens and early 20s, interfering with this stage of early adulthood and professional development. Schizophrenia tends to occur later in women, showing up in their mid to late 20s, disrupting their adult lives.

7. One of the aspects of schizophrenia is anosognosia, also known as a "lack of insight" or a "lack of awareness" into the disease. Those who are suffering from schizophrenia are often disbelieving of their diagnosis, robbing them of the ability to accept the kinds of treatment that will lessen their symptoms. This is, in my view, the cruelest aspect of the disease, as it prevents many from receiving treatment and can lead to many unnecessary years of pain and suffering.

8. People who are treated for their mental illness are not more likely to commit violent crimes than anyone in the general population.

9. Mental illness places a large financial burden on our population, estimated at over $300 billion annually in direct and indirect costs. The National Institute of Health (NIH) estimates Fiscal Year 2014 Funding for Various Research, Condition, and Disease Categories (RCDC) of $146 billion. The schizophrenia portion represents $236 million of this total or approximately two-tenths of 1 percent or approximately $107 for each of the 2.2 million people living with schizophrenia.

As indicated on the NIH website, the "NIH does not expressly budget by category. The annual estimates reflect amounts that change as a result of science, actual research projects funded, and the NIH budget. The research categories are not mutually exclusive. Individual research projects can be included in multiple categories so amounts depicted within each column of this table do not add up to 100 percent of NIH-funded research."

While I appreciate the importance of the NIH disclosure of how the dollar amounts of the 2014 funding estimates were derived, I believe the investment is inadequate if we don't find improved treatments for the 2.2 million Americans living with schizophrenia.

10. Securing government assistance requires those suffering from mental illness to complete many complicated and labor-intensive tasks. However, these tasks are very difficult for some sufferers of mental illness who struggle with daily activities, placing the burden of care on families or leaving too many people homeless.

In order to help those who are suffering from mental illness, we need to see serious change in our mental health system. As a parent, I ask that everyone who is impacted by mental illness, including parents, siblings, teachers, colleagues, and extended family members, to email your federal congressman and senator and request they include provisions in the federal budget to allocate at least an additional $1 billion annually to the funding of brain, tele-health care, and social research to support people who are suffering from serious mental illnesses. This funding should be specifically allocated to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Only with the expansion of funding will we be able to develop advanced treatments that will help those suffering from mental illness, ultimately decreasing the long-term costs of mental illness and improving the lives of our fellow Americans.

Less than a month before his assassination, President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, which provided $150 million for new mental health centers in the wake of the closing of state psychiatric hospitals. To date, President Kennedy's vision for successful community-based treatment has not been realized. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the current administration, President Obama, Vice President Biden, and our U.S. Congress, as well as the American people, will respond to the challenge that President Kennedy envisioned over 50 years ago. Let's affirm that we value those who suffer from mental illness and work together to deliver on President Kennedy's goal to better support and care for the sufferers of serious mental illness.

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