MIAW: Fifty years later, Kennedy’s challenge remains unmet

By Sue Adberholden, Guest Columnist

Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) is Oct. 6-12. This is a time to raise awareness in our community about these very common treatable illnesses. In nearly 20 communities in Minnesota, events are being held to educate people about mental illnesses and to discuss what the community can do to improve the lives of children and adults with mental illnesses and their families.

These conversations are critically important. If we can’t talk about our attitudes and perceptions, we can’t change them.

Changing attitudes will also help us to change the system. Kennedy held out the promise for a life in the community in a 1963 speech stating, “If we launch a broad new mental health program now, it will be possible within a decade or two to reduce the number of patients under custodial care … reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability.”

Fifty years ago he challenged our country to develop a community mental health system — and 50 years later we are still waiting.

Contrast this with the fact that 50 years ago President Kennedy also challenged our country to go to the moon — and eight years later we did. It is incredulous that 50 years later we are still waiting for a community mental health system and in many ways for community support and acceptance.

While it is true that the problems with the mental health system are complex, the solutions are not. We know what works; we just have to fund it. This past legislative session much progress was made to improve the children’s mental health system in Minnesota. This is important since half of adults with a serious mental illness begin experiencing symptoms before the age of 14. Additional services and supports were made available where children are at — in our schools and in their family’s home.

In the adult mental health system, we know that having a home, a job and community support is critical to wellness. Affordable and supportive housing are woefully under-funded, yet helping with monthly rent is cheaper than the costs of spending a month in jail or a hospital.

Employment is important in that it provides income, structure, connection with others and a reason to get up in the morning. Community supports help people remain in the community, this includes family and friends and also staff to come and help with daily activities that may be difficult due to the symptoms of the mental illness.

Most importantly, though, we need to help people earlier on in their illness. Our system responds typically when there is an emergency, often months after the symptoms first appeared or reappeared. We would never tell someone initially diagnosed with cancer to come back when they hit stage four — but that is what we do in the mental health system. Early intervention and intensive treatment are warranted but not funded.

As we approach this important week for the mental health community, let’s start talking about how we treat people with mental illnesses in our community, workplace, faith community, etc. And let’s start talking about having the will to finally make the much needed investments and changes to our mental health system. We have waited too long already.

If we can make it to the moon and back in eight years, surely we can fulfill our promises to people with mental illnesses in 51 years.

Sue Abderholden is executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Minnesota.