Op-ed: 60 Million Americans Live With Mental Illness Each Year—It's Time to Start Talking

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, works tirelessly to raise awareness and educate the public about mental illness.

(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

May 13, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Mary Giliberti, J.D. is the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Previously, Ms. Giliberti served as a section chief in the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Prior to that, she was the director of public policy and advocacy for federal and state issues at NAMI.

Imagine filling out college applications with your child one day and then watching him or her be admitted to a psychiatric hospital the next. That was reality for National Alliance of Mental Illness member Dawn Brown, whose son was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 18. Brown says her son's mental illness left her feeling helpless:

“Mental illness had stripped my son of his personhood with all the rights, privileges, and dignity it conveys, and I had no control of his care. I was broken-hearted and terrified as he was taken to the state hospital. [My son] had become part of the industrial mental health care system at its lowest level, and my life was a train wreck. Desperate, I asked about programs for the family members of patients and was abruptly told that they had nothing to offer.”

This year President Barack Obama again proclaimed May National Mental Health Awareness Month, as he did in 2013. He made this proclamation to reaffirm our nation’s promise to increase our understanding of mental illness, improve access to treatment, and let those struggling with mental illness know they are not alone.

NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization; we work tirelessly to raise awareness and educate the public about mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 60 million Americans experience some form of mental illness in a given year. That’s one in four adults. So how has this issue been ignored for so long?

National Mental Health Awareness Month provides us with an opportunity to band together and display the passion and strength of those working to improve the mental health system. We need to be champions of new ideas, education, and supports. We need to show our commitment to building a compassionate understanding of mental illness, improving treatment outcomes and availability, and reducing the stigma that plagues this issue.

Taking action is imperative—not because of a national tragedy or a presidential proclamation but because last year, 60 percent of people living with a mental illness were not able to obtain treatment and almost one-half of children living with a mental illness went undiagnosed and untreated, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Through programs such as Pivot TV’s Please Like Me and other entertainment, champions and crusaders for mental health are emerging to promote awareness and speak out. With the inclusion of stories of their and their family’s experiences, these programs help change ignorance into understanding and despair into hope.

But more has to change. Each day NAMI receives hundreds of phone calls on our HelpLine and many messages and stories on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter from people asking for help or sharing stories of hope and healing. They are wondering where to turn for support and how to overcome an illness that takes control of the way they or their loved ones think, feel, and act.

Brown says that healing is a process: “There is no cure for mental illness, so today [my son] and I talk about recovery; recovery involves building a new life with a valued sense of and purpose with hope for the future.”

This is what we at NAMI strive to do every day.

We encourage you to step out and speak up this month in recognition of National Mental Health Awareness Month—whether on your own or with NAMI. Wear green, start a conversation, celebrate a recovery victory, or take advocacy action. Join us in telling Congress that it is time to address mental health in this country.

The fight against mental illness and stigma is one we face every day, but in May we ask that everyone join in our efforts because it’s time to put this issue in the public eye for the right reasons.