Mental illness is in the news. On Tuesday, Jared Loughner -- the Arizona shooter who in 2011 killed six and wounded 13, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- pleaded guilty after a federal judge found that treatment for schizophrenia had made him competent to stand trial.
The week also brought reports that the psychiatrist of movie-theater shooting suspect James Holmes had alerted University of Colorado police weeks before he allegedly killed 12 -- which, given state law and professional standards about confidentiality, indicate that she had serious concerns about his behavior.
These painfully sad stories should cause us, as a nation, to finally acknowledge the prevalence of mental illness, and to do more to alleviate it.
In any given year, 20 to 25 percent of the adult population of the United States will experience mental illness. The causes are complex. Often there's a genetic component, but other factors -- trauma or toxic life experiences, such as exposure to abuse -- can play a role. Mental illness can make itself known in the form of alcohol or illicit drug abuse.
At times people withdraw from life or avoid activities that they find to be emotionally overwhelming. They may show self-injurious or suicidal behavior. A minority of those with serious mental illness will become violent.
While these indicators of mental illness are a source of concern, what makes matters worse is that, in general, people are loath to admit that they are susceptible to the most common symptoms of mental illness: depression, anxiety or a thought disorder. This occurs largely due to the stigma or shame associated with having a psychiatric disorder.
In addition, loved ones are often unknowing, or in denial, that a family member is ill. This problem is then compounded by the fact that people usually do not seek out mental health assistance when they feel troubled. They are more likely to make contact with a primary care practitioner -- but unfortunately, these providers often fail to consider if depression, anxiety or a thought disorder is present.
These front-line doctors need more training in this area, or they must develop close alliances with mental health providers who can partner with them in the treatment process.
The societal costs of untreated mental illness are staggering, but the care for mental illness is as effective as the treatments for chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, asthma, hypertension and obesity. The challenge, then, is to make mental health treatment easily accessible, and accepted as a component of overall health care.
As a society, we need to become more aware that some of us are especially vulnerable to developing mental illness -- and that all of us are susceptible to stressful life events that can induce psychiatric symptoms. These symptoms undermine emotional and physical health, and have a destabilizing effect on individuals, families and society as a whole. Considering how common it is to have this condition, we as individuals must get better at identifying when we are beginning to get emotionally unhealthy, and engaging in behaviors that promote wellness and reduce psychological stress. If the condition is befalling a loved one, we should work to assure that they get help.
Mainly, we need to stop ignoring our mental health needs. Only by facing this matter will we be able to identify and correct the dysfunctional behaviors that bring harm to ourselves and others.
James R. Dolan Jr. is the director of the Nassau County Office of Mental Health, Chemical Dependency and Developmental Disabilities Services.