Guest opinion by Cindy Becker , director of Clackamas County Health, Housing and Human Services. Find out more about Open Minds Open Doors at openmindsanddoors.com.
Dave Mowry showed great bravery by going public about his struggles with mental illness in The Sunday Oregonian on July 3 (“Bipolar comes out of the shadows”). His honesty and openness are an inspiration to everyone dealing with mental health or addictions issues.
The truth is that Mowry’s story is just the tip of the iceberg. According to a new national survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 19.9 percent of American adults (45.1 million) have experienced mental illness over the past year. In a 2008 SAMHSA survey, an estimated 22.2 million people age 12 or older were classified with substance dependence or abuse during the past year (8.9 percent of the population age 12 or older). People with mental illness and addictions are part of our community. They are friends, co-workers, neighbors and loved ones. Their challenges affect all of us, whether it is at work, at home, at church or at school.
Clackamas County, in concert with NAMI of Clackamas County, has recently launched a community campaign — Open Minds Open Doors — to combat this stigma. Our purpose is twofold: to change perceptions and to create an environment where people can reach out for help.
If a friend or family member told you he had diabetes or cancer, you would probably express concern, offer support and learn about options for recovery. But if you heard he had mental health or addictions issues, how would you respond? The reality is that mental illness is no different from physical illness. Conditions such as depression, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders often carry physical side effects. The emotional and psychological aspects of mental illness make supportive friends and family even more important to a person’s recovery.
Too often, as we know from Mowry’s story, people are afraid to reach out for help because of the shame and stigma associated with mental illness or addictions. At the same time, we know that early intervention provides the best opportunity for long-term recovery. In 2010, Clackamas County commissioned a poll about the attitudes and perceptions around mental illness and addictions. Most respondents felt that mental health is just as important as physical health and that people with mental illnesses deserve to be treated fairly. Even though most people in the survey thought this way, individuals with mental illnesses continually tell us they experience stigma on a regular basis. People are ready to change their perceptions, but we still have work to do to break down the silence and eliminate the stigma once and for all.
There’s also a business case for breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness and addictions. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of people with these disorders are gainfully employed. Untreated mental illness and addictions cost employers millions of dollars every year in lost productivity and medical costs, so supporting treatment and recovery is good for the bottom line.
The fight against stigma must happen in the communities where we live and work. We need to commit to changing our own attitudes and confront the myths and fears around mental illness and addictions. Dave Mowry is an example for us all. Reach out to people in need, and if you are in need, reach out for help. The only way we can break down the stigma around mental illness and addictions is to learn about it, to reach out to others and to talk about it.