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Rosalynn Carter Op-Ed: Erasing Stigma Key to Mental Treatment

By Rosalynn Carter

This op-ed was published in the May 26, 2006, edition of the San Jose Mercury News.

Every day, millions of Americans are screened and treated for heart disease, cancer or diabetes by primary care professionals, but most go home without being screened for a mental illness. This is unfortunate, because more people suffer from mental illnesses than from the three other diseases combined.

While mental illnesses can be as debilitating and life-threatening as many physical illnesses, research shows that fewer than half of the 54 million Americans who have a mental illness seek treatment.

May is National Mental Health Month, and communities across the country are commemorating the occasion by raising awareness and encouraging Americans to learn more about mental health issues. While these events show how much we have improved understanding and reduced stigma, there are still many misconceptions about mental health that prevent people from seeking help or discussing the issue openly with friends and family.

For more than three decades I have advocated on behalf of people who have mental illnesses, and I have gained hope as society became more educated and accepting. But as we learn more about how the brain works and develop more effective treatments, it grieves me that millions of Americans and their families still suffer in silence.

It is even more disconcerting that in a time when we know the very most about how to help people, we maintain policies that prohibit many from getting access to services. Because insurers fear that their costs will increase, mental health treatment is not covered by insurance at a level comparable to other illnesses.

Many states and the federal government have not legislated protections against this discrimination, although federal employees do enjoy such parity.

Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a study titled "Behavioral Health Insurance Parity for Federal Employees,'' which revealed that when parity in insurance benefits for behavioral health care is coupled with management of care, insurance protection can be improved without increasing total costs.

It is time to stop throwing up barriers to mental health care needed by so many Americans.

It is encouraging that numerous federal and state laws protect Americans with mental illnesses and disabilities against discrimination at work and in their communities just as they do people with other illnesses and disabilities. These protections must be maintained and expanded.

No one suffering from a mental disorder should feel alone or ashamed. One in five Americans has a mental illness, and millions more experience mental health challenges as they deal with grief, stress and the everyday struggles of life. Mental illnesses skip across socioeconomic boundaries, afflicting young and old alike in every community, ethnic group and income category.

The World Health Organization reports that depression is among the leading causes of disability worldwide. It estimates that reduced productivity and missed work days due to depression cost the U.S. economy about $44 billion a year.

Symptoms of mental illnesses can vary widely based on the disorder and individual responses. People experience mental health challenges in their own way. Because of this and the fear many people have about admitting their symptoms, it can be difficult to spot early signs. But if you find you have lost interest in things or activities that were once important to you, or a loved one seems to be behaving out of character, you should seek guidance from a medical professional. Mental illnesses are serious matters and can lead to disability, suicide and other life-threatening actions.

Many people think nothing can be done to treat the more severe illnesses, but major advancements in medicine and community-based rehabilitation have prompted the development of several new and effective treatment options. Studies show that treatments for depression - which affects more than 19 million Americans - are effective in nearly 80 percent of those seeking care. It is unfortunate, then, that only half of those with this disorder seek treatment.

All of us should be concerned and should pledge to increase mental health awareness until the stigma vanishes and mental illnesses are viewed simply as illnesses like any other. Hopefully, the time will come soon when the millions of our fellow citizens who need help seek it and receive effective treatments that place them on the path to recovery.


ROSALYNN CARTER is a former first lady who continues today her work to combat the stigma against mental illness through the Carter Center's Mental Health Program.

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