Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Behind massacre headlines, mental illness an everyday crisis

Maybe, just maybe, some good can come of the dreadful massacre and deaths of 32 students and professors at Virginia Tech: a new and lasting national program to vigorously deal with a growing mental illness crisis.

The psychotic babbling and frightening, posed photos of the deranged gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, exemplify the most extreme, but not rare, type of mental disorder.

Since the warehousing and detention of mental illness patients were ended by court orders several decades ago, Americans are more aware than ever of the scope of mental health problems.

The most visible illustrations are regular workplace and campus shootings that have come with the nation's easy access to weapons, domestic violence in which spouses and children are beaten or killed, and the growing population of mentally distressed homeless people crowding urban streets without any assistance.

The mentally ill are not merely pitiable; they're potential menaces to themselves and their communities, and are an increasingly costly outpatient burden to public healthcare and to the criminal justice system.

And, yet, the crisis continues, virtually ignored as a major domestic problem while politicians rant about a war a half-world away. Gaps in health insurance coverage for those in urgent need of treatment and a lack of public commitment of resources and facilities have left the mentally unfit virtually adrift.

Statistically, mental illness is undeniably a national disgrace and tragedy.

The Centers for Disease Control provides an unsettling litany of data, some several years old but symptomatic, that underscore the magnitude of U.S. mental illness.

Suicides: more than 30,000 per year.

Visits to office physicians for mental disorders: 48 million.

Ambulatory care visitors for mental disorders: more than 50 million.

If those numbers are too antiseptic, consider these: the National Alliance for Mental Illness estimates that 1 in 5 U.S. families are affected by mental illness, while the World Health Organization reports that four of the 10 leading causes of disability in the United States are mental disorders.

NAMI also finds that the annual cost of mental illness to the nation is $79 billion, of which $63 billion is lost workplace productivity. (NAMI's report on state programs lists Idaho as 49th in the nation, with a grade of F with its per capita spending of $33.69 per year.)

A veritable forest of mental illness statistics—about the high number of mentally ill criminals, mentally ill teenagers, mentally ill among suicides—add up to an indefensible national disgrace.

Without an aggressive national attack on mental illness with facilities and treatment, disorders will become a national epidemic.

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