Former first lady crusades for better mental-health care
At age 82, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter could be taking life easy. Instead, she's still hard at work on the campaign of her lifetime: She wants to see people with mental illnesses treated better, in both the medical and general sense of the word "treated."
Carter is promoting her new book "Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis," in which she (with co-writers Susan Golant and Kathryn Cade) documents the obstacles that people with mental illness face in the United States and offers ideas about how to remove those barriers.
Nearly 60 million U.S. adults suffer from mental illness, according to the book. On top of the obvious burden that mental illness places on a person and his or her family, Carter argues that stigma is their biggest challenge.
"Stigma is the most damaging factor in the life of anyone who has a mental illness," Carter writes. "It humiliates and embarrasses; it is painful; it generates stereotypes, fear, and rejection; it leads to terrible discrimination. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that stigma keeps people from seeking help for fear of being labeled 'mentally ill.'" Which is a shame, Carter told me on the phone, because "today, if detected early, we have interventions that work and can mitigate the consequences" of mental illness.
But stigma is far from the only concern mentally ill people face. They are under-served by the health-care system and encounter insurance roadblocks; they're also more likely to die prematurely than others, Carter writes. Such issues are amplified when mental illness strikes members of cultural minorities, elderly people and children. It's a big mess.
So what to do about this? Carter suggests the following:
- Volunteer: "There are always people in the community who advocate for the mentally ill," Carter says. "Find a [treatment] center, work [there] and become acquainted with people with mental illness."
- Call Congress: "Look up your Congresspeople and local people and tell them how important it is to fund these programs I've written about" in her book. "We always need money for mental health."
- Watch your kids: "Fifty percent of mental illness is detected by age 14," Carter says. Parents should be on the lookout from the time their children are babies for anything unusual about the way they interact with others or any delays in reaching developmental milestones, she said. Any issues should be brought to a doctor's attention.
- Encourage communication: If you know someone with mental illness, encourage them to talk about it. "It's so good when they talk about it, go public. They're going to find there are so many people in the same position," she says.
- Read up: If nothing else, Carter suggests, people "can read my book and spread the word."
Okay, I'll do my part by encouraging communication. Do you or a loved one suffer from mental illness? Would you share your story or insights, please, in the Comments section?
Jennifer LaRue Huget
May 10, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Health Policy , Mental Health , Psychology
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