Talking about Mental Illness

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Fifty years ago President Kennedy called for a new way to treat mental illness.  At that time over a half a million people suffering from mental illnesses of varying forms were in institutions.  (I admit, I cannot NOT think about 1962 Ken Kesey and Big Nurse.)  Kennedy envisioned a community approach where those who needed help could get it in their own communities, rather than being separated from friends and families and directed instead into the isolation room.


We’ve gone through our ups and downs for sure.  Yet I see slow progress being made in our ability to acknowledge that mental health is something we can and must talk about.DSCN1234


I am learning from leaders in this field including Amnon Schoenfeld from King County Mental Health and Bill Hobson from Downtown Seattle Emergency Service Center to open up about this topic.  An excellent role model for me is former King County Executive Randy Revelle who is leading a statewide stakeholder group at the request of Speaker Frank Chopp.  Mr. Revelle talks about his personal experience in “Stigma to Hope“.  All these professionals acknowledge that we reduce the stigma once we start talking about our personal experiences.


Depression runs in my family too.  I wouldn’t talk about it.  Yet I saw first hand the consequences where an adult with depression wouldn’t seek treatment, and I convinced myself  it “wasn’t that bad” or in my truly self-delusional moments it wasn’t happening at all. The results can be tragic, and certainly are isolating.


The King County website on mental health states  “between 28 and 30 percent of the U.S. population has a mental health disorder, substance abuse disorder, or both.  And whereas about nine percent of American adults have depression,  only one-fifth will receive the care they need to treat the condition.”


That’s what I experienced in my own family.  We were among the 80% — the depression wasn’t diagnosed properly or treated, and the consequences ignored.


If you want to know more about symptoms of depression or services that are available in Seattle/King County, check out King County Mental Health Services website.

 Elena's photos Nuku Hiva and beyond 052

The collective “we” will make real progress when we fund the programs we need statewide.  Because of extensive state and federal budget cuts to mental illness programs these past years, we have seen many important programs chopped or eliminated; but there’s hope — some of our Washington State legislators recognize the value of Seattle and King County’s community based programs and have offered legislation this year — with the support of the National Alliance on Mental Health — to nudge us in the right direction.


Thanks to our Seattle legislators including Rep. Jamie Pedersen, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Rep. Eileen Cody , Rep. Ruth Kagi (and other statewide and local legislators including Rep. Tina Orwall (D-33d)),  we’ve seen renewed advocacy for important programs such as the one to help professionals in schools to recognize suicidal tendencies of young people.


Our forebearers would have approved of these programs 50 years ago; now these and other programs must be appropriately funded.


Special thanks to those who bravely bring light to the conversation, talking honestly about their own issues. This approach greatly helps those of us who are confused or fearful to overcome our own feelings of failure or isolation. Here’s an excellent piece written by my friend and minister Tony Robinson who writes from his own perspective in Crosscut this week:  Tony Robinson’s recent Crosscut article here.