Imagine that you are a college student sitting in your doctor’s office. With a worried expression on her face, she tells you, “I have bad news. You have a serious, debilitating illness that will impact every facet of your life, from work to school to relationships.” She explains that your illness is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10-24. And though you can manage your condition with medication and lifestyle changes, there’s no cure or guarantee that you won’t relapse.
You have a serious mental illness. But instead of the treatment and recovery you deserve, chances are good that you’ll end up chronically homeless or in prison because of your health condition. Almost 10 million people in the United States live with serious mental illness, often defined as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression. My son is one of them: Because he has bipolar disorder, his risk of dying by suicide is 15-17 percent, comparable to the death rates for pediatric brain tumors.
In Idaho, 54,000 adults and 18,000 children have serious mental health conditions. Many of them cannot afford health insurance because our state legislators have not expanded Medicaid to help the working poor. Nationally, those with serious mental illness make up 4 percent of the population, yet a disproportionate 26 percent of people who are chronically homeless and 20 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons have serious mental illness (many more live with other mental health conditions such as anxiety or ADHD).
The gap in Idaho’s mental health care system played out on the national stage recently, when Kyle Odom, a young veteran with untreated mental illness, allegedly shot a North Idaho pastor, then flew to Washington, D.C., to warn President Obama about the delusional conviction that many of our elected officials are actually Martians. Mental illness seemingly has taken yet another bright young mind as its hostage.
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But Idaho state legislators aren’t the only ones dragging their heels. Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Tim Murphy has championed reform with the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act” (HR 2646), but the U.S. Senate has failed to draft comparable legislation. Instead, at the same time Odom was flying to Washington, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions released a draft of a mental health bill that does virtually nothing to help people with serious mental illness.
Serious mental illness is a young person’s disorder, with 50 percent of all chronic lifelong illness beginning before age 14, and 75 percent before age 24. Our children do not “choose” to have serious mental illness any more than they would “choose” to have a brain tumor. But because mental health conditions are invisible, people who live with mental illness and their families face crushing stigma and judgment from society.
Funding research and treatment for serious mental illness will save money by reducing the strain on our emergency services and prisons. But more importantly, it will save lives.
Liza Long, of Boise, serves on the board of NAMI Boise (National Alliance of Mental Illness).