Mental Health & the Stigma Question
The horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December rekindled discussion of the link between mental health and gun violence, and violence in general.
Some in the mental health community have come out strongly against associating mass shootings like those in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., with mental health. They are sensitive to the risk of stigmatizing mental illness, which could discourage those who experience it from seeking professional help.
It's a complex situation. One concern is where those with mental health issues can receive care. The Treatment Advocacy Center, a national group "dedicated to eliminating barriers to the timely and effective treatment of severe mental illness," has tallied a 14% decrease in the number of state psychiatric beds from 2005 to 2010, dropping from 50,509 in 2005 to 43,318 in 2010. More than 4,000 additional bed eliminations have been completed or proposed since 2010, it says.
The closures are part of a decades-old movement to shift mental healthcare from large, state-run institutions to community-based organizations, with uneven results. "Approximately half of the mentally ill individuals discharged from state mental hospitals, many of whom had family support, sought outpatient treatment and have done well. The other half, many of whom lack family support and suffer from the most severe illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, have done poorly," Treatment Advocacy Center founder E. Fuller Torrey, MD, writes in a Feb. 5, 2013, opinion essay in The Wall Street Journal.
While that aspect of the debate continues, the public is ready for collective action. Survey results published Jan. 28, 2013, in the New England Journal of Medicine show almost 60% of respondents support increased government spending on mental healthcare.
Concerns over stigmatizing mental health treatment are valid. But they should not be allowed to stifle an honest discussion of how to improve the mental health system at a time when the public is paying attention to the subject.