Op-ed: Make mental health a priority

  • By Susan Johnson
  • Sunday, October 30, 2016 9:42pm
  • Opinion

Many of us ignore physical symptoms—an aching tooth, a shoulder which locks up, early signs of diabetes or high blood pressure. Maybe we’re afraid of the dentist, don’t want to face possible surgery, or don’t want to deal with medications and lifestyle changes.

We may also ignore signs of depression and other mental illnesses for a variety of reasons. We might feel mental illness is a sign of weakness, or fear that friends, family, or employers would judge us or discriminate against us. Already, too many Americans experience prejudice, discrimination, abuse, and victimization based on a mental health diagnosis. And for too long, Americans paid for health insurance that did not recognize that treatment for mental health and substance use disorders is as essential as other medical treatment.

It’s time for us to let people who are living with mental health conditions know that they are not alone, and that this administration is providing important protections for people experiencing mental illness. A recent report from the Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Parity Task Force includes a series of new actions and recommendations to ensure that insurance coverage for mental health and substance use disorder services is comparable to—or at parity with—general medical care because, just as with other illnesses, we can’t afford to neglect our mental health.

Mental illnesses take huge tolls on individuals and society as a whole. The annual direct and indirect economic costs of mental illnesses in the US, particularly untreated mental illnesses, are estimated to be in the hundreds of billions. Productivity and income are reduced, healthcare costs for other illnesses rise, and addiction, homelessness, and disability rates rise. Most importantly, individuals and families suffer.

According to the most recent statistics, 43.4 million adults aged 18 or older experienced some form of mental illness in the past year, and the CDC projects depression will be the second leading cause of disability worldwide by 2020.

Though disabling when symptoms persist, depression is treatable and most Americans greatly improve with treatment, services, and recovery supports. Signs of depression include experiencing some of the following, most of the day, for at least two weeks:

— Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood

— Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism

— Irritability

— Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness

— Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities

— Decreased energy or fatigue

— Moving or talking more slowly

— Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still

— Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions

— Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping

— Appetite and/or weight changes

— Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts

— Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment.

Physical diseases like diabetes, arthritis, or heart disease can increase your risk of depression. Factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, family history, major life changes, and where you live can also play a role in depression.

Help is available. If you or someone you love exhibits signs of depression or another mental illness, the first step is to get screened. To find help, visit Alaska 2-1-1 day or night. For providers near you, visit Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Treatment Services Locator, or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Those contemplating suicide should call Alaska’s Careline at 1-877-266-HELP (4357). If someone is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.

The National Institute of Mental Health has a list of suggestions to help support treatment: Beyond Treatment: Things You Can Do. You can also find more information at SAMHSA’s website or at MentalHealth.gov.

Mental health is essential to overall health. Make mental health a priority!

Susan Johnson is Regional Director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Region 10.

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