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Fighting the last stigma

The good news is that we’ve clearly made progress towards eliminating a lot of stigma in this society. There’s certainly much less against gay people, and we have, after all, a black president. Most people are no longer unnerved by the thought of meeting someone with AIDS, and as far as I can tell, nobody cares if their coworkers happen to be Jewish.

But mental illness is something else again. Too many of us prefer not to think about it. We’re often reluctant to mention it if we have family members who are mentally ill. Yet there are far more mentally ill than many of us realize. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than one in every four American adults experience mental illness every year.

That’s more than sixty-one million people. Many are at serious risk of suicide. Nearly fourteen million of those live daily with its most serious forms – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. This is not something most Americans realize, or want to think about. Partly as a result, too many treatment programs are inadequately funded.

Two years ago, President Obama proclaimed May National Mental Health Awareness Month. This year, the Detroit Wayne County Mental Health Authority is trying to use that to, indeed, get people’s attention. Tom Watkins became the authority’s director two years ago, and at the time, some thought that was an odd choice. Watkins, a former state superintendent of schools, was best known in recent years as a passionate advocate of closer ties with China.

But Watkins felt he had both a professional commitment to this work as an educator, and a personal one. His two brothers both suffered with severe depression, and committed suicide.

He told me yesterday that his philosophy is that if his organization does no more than help one person – one family – it will have “added value and made a difference.”

Mental illness is no respecter of education, income or class – though not everybody in this society has equal access to treatment. African-American, Hispanic and Asian Americans use mental health services at less than half the rate of white Americans. Some of this may be due to ignorance of what’s available, or the stigma some associate with seeking and receiving help.

One of the smallest groups in society may also be among the most heavily affected – military veterans. Those now serving are less than one percent of the population. But nationwide, veterans account for 20 percent of all suicides. If this is an average day, 22 vets will kill themselves before May 13th is over.

To raise awareness, the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority has produced a new half-hour documentary, “Opening Minds – Ending Stigma” in partnership with the Flinn Foundation. It will air on Channel 62 in Detroit May 23, but can be downloaded and watched anytime from the mental health authority’s website. (www.dwmha.com)

Among those taking part in the video are Senator Debbie Stabenow, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, and Michelle Obama. Watkins told me his goal was first to raise awareness, and then fight for the resources to provide the highest quality care and treatment to some of society’s most vulnerable people. When you think about it, it’s hard to imagine a more worthy goal.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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