Sharing the pain, part I

One thing that came across loud and clear at last week’s Schorr Family Forum, held at the University of Arizona’s Centennial Hall, is that it’s time for mental illness to emerge from hiding, and that it’s called illness for a reason.

Young folks are getting it. Students learn to listen to classmates for words of despair. It may be hard for young people to say the words out loud, but there are helpful resources online that can start the conversation.

“I feel very strongly that denial will never reduce the stigma of mental illness,” said Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, and this year’s recipient of the 14th Schorr Family Award for Distinguished Contribution in Furthering Public Understanding of Mental Illness.

Why do we as a society neglect mental illness so mercilessly? The statistics are astounding. Seventy-five percent of people with mental illness — which all have a biological basis — show symptoms by age 24. Detecting risk can be the same as in heart disease or diabetes, but the amount of funding for research is nowhere in the same ballpark.

Yet the first symptoms usually occur two to four years before full-blown mental illness, panelist Laurie Flynn, executive director of Columbia University Medical School’s Teen Screen National Center, told the audience.”Let’s promote early detection, making routine screening for mental illness part of early health care,” she asserted, adding that the Teen Screen Center offers a five-minute, self-administered psychological screening.

Might the teen years be a good time for such screening, considering that the leading cause of death among college students is suicide?

One-half of the people with mental illness get no care at all  in our society, according to Dr. Ken Duckworth, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and one of the panelists at the forum.

“I think it’s easier to get access to firearms in Arizona than to get mental health treatment,” he quipped, although we all know that’s unfortunately true. “It’s easier to get into Harvard Medical School than it is to get psychiatric treatment,” he added.

Flynn said that her daughter tried to commit suicide 20 years ago, and that three members of her extended family had committed suicide. “But no one had said a word” prior to her daughter’s diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. With adequate treatment, her daughter now lives a normal life. She hasn’t been hospitalized in 12 years, holds a good job and got married seven years ago.

But she’s one of the lucky ones.

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