Mental illness is treated differently than any other illness. It always has been. It remains in the shadows and away from the public square. It is rarely the subject of casual conversation or self-disclosure, and it is invariably an awkward topic when it can’t be avoided.
People have been taught to hide it whenever possible and to avoid the shame that unfairly comes with it. It is too often perceived as a character flaw or a personal weakness. It is just too uncomfortable to talk about for too many of us. And so we usually don’t discuss mental suffering with others in the hope that it will not strike us or someone we love, and if it does we have learned to conceal it or to at least to try.
Somehow almost everyone is comfortable talking about heart disease, diabetes, cancers of all sorts, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and even HIV. But none of those conditions come with the inexplicable stigma of mental illness. Given the empirical evidence around us, it’s about time that we not only start talking about mental suffering but learning about it, too. Knowledge is our best friend and could help us change the secretive culture surrounding mental illness. We will save and restore lives if we begin to treat mental illness with the respect and humanity it deserves. And many of those lives will be young lives.
This month it was reported that the number of suicides in the United States hit a 30-year high. Last year, more people died of suicide in our country than died on our highways. Equally concerning is that half of all mental illness has its onset by age 14, and two thirds arrives uninvited by age 24. Much of it goes undetected, untreated and concealed, if possible. Ironically, those suffering from mental illness are often the last to know. Some of those suffering self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. They need to escape the pain and the hopelessness. Some of them overdose.
By some accounts, 22 members of our military take their own lives every day. Mental illness affects more lives than cancer and is the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada. For something this consequential that often preys on young lives and destroys futures and families without conscience, it is hard to believe it gets so little public attention. That won’t change anytime soon unless we change it. Now we can.
On May 23 in Representatives Hall in the State House, in an event that is free and open to the public and widely supported by the health care community, we will be launching a statewide campaign to Change Direction on mental health in New Hampshire. The campaign’s mission is both nonpolitical and nonpartisan. The governor and all members of our Congressional delegation – regardless of Party – have embraced it and plan to attend. Its goal is simple, practical, timely and important: to make the five most common signs of mental illness as well and widely known by everyone as the signs of a heart attack or stroke. Parents, families, teachers, coaches, friends, co-workers and those suffering from mental illness need to know the signs so that help and treatment become a reality.
The campaign will host several mental health forums for the public throughout our state over the next year to raise awareness and increase understanding about mental illness, our mental health infrastructure in New Hampshire and the success of treatment. We will also take to the airwaves, billboards and posters. We are encouraged by the early embrace our efforts have received, but change will not be easy. We need everyone to help. Please start by joining us at the State House on May 23 at 10 a.m. To sign up, please go to riverbendcmhc.org and click on the “register” button under the Change Direction icon.
(John T. Broderick, Jr. is a former Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.)