How to Change the State of Mental Health in America

POSTELL__5311436469490 (1)
Postell holds degrees in economics, accounting and law. | Source: Washington Post

Recently, a Washington Times article about mental illness went viral. It tells the unfortunate story of how Alfred Postell, a Harvard-educated man, became homeless, largely attributed to his untreated mental illness.

What this article does not explore is why Postell, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, had not received medical treatment for his mental illness. It should be noted that in the article, Postell is referred to as a ‘schizophrenic,’ which is largely insensitive and offensive to the mental health community. It is crucial to keep in mind that people are diagnosed with or live with a mental illness. People are not their illness, nor should they be defined or labeled as such (see more tips on using respectful language, as well as other recommendations, below).

A follow-up Washington Post article came out a few days later, exploring the question of the lack of sufficient mental health care for Postell. The two reasons discussed were:

  1. From the system-side, it is difficult to provide treatment without consent.
  2. On the individual level, there is speculation that Postell may not want help.
Whether or not Postell wants professional help, one thing is clear. Our nation’s mental health system continues to fail many, like Postell, with mental illness. The ideal would be a preventative system, one that is inclusive of holistic wellness education and begins with youth at an early age.
One particular taboo aspect of our nation’s past for dealing with mental illness was by putting individuals in psychiatric hospitals and asylums with deplorable conditions, where they were forgotten by society. Today, we see the closing of a lot of state hospitals and dried up funding; a common conduit leads to our nation’s prison system, where a majority of inmates live with a mental illness of some sort.
Unfortunately, the mental health care system is constructed to function as it does, and at a root level, we are taught that anything associated with the word ‘mental’ automatically has a negative and unspeakable connotation. We continue down a cyclical spiral where mental health concerns are ignored. As for the individuals who do not receive proper nor consistent treatment? They face the potential to develop more severe mental illnesses.
Postell is one of thousands of homeless individuals in Washington D.C., where in January of this year, over 4,000 sought shelter during yet another harsh winter. | Source: Washington Post
The truth is, we have a very reactionary system when it comes to addressing mental illness. We only discuss the need for mental health reform in times of crisis or after a heartbreaking story comes along. Even then, mental health reform is not taken seriously, often used to explain heinous crimes, then later swept under the rug. Additionally, mental health remains largely underfunded, particularly among states that decreased funding for the 2015 fiscal year (these states are Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Wyoming). Several other states neither decreased nor increased their funding, and remained level.
SLN_Dec15_mental health GRAPHIC
Mental health budgets by state over the last two years. | Source: Pew Charitable Trusts
Mental illness does not discriminate. Though prevalence varies, it affects everyone, regardless of age, gender, race or socioeconomic status. Even celebrities are affected by mental illness, as we have witnessed with the deaths of Heath Ledger and Robin Williams. Society has taught us that dying by drug overdose or suicide is natural, that it is part of life. This is wrong, and only encourages others to suffer in silence or worse, alone. However, there are empowering advocates today, like Demi Lovato, Glenn Close, Brandon Marshall and Wayne Brady, who have used their fame as a platform for investing in mental health. They are each sharing their stories. They are also telling us that we need to raise the conversation into a more positive light.
What Now? 
How do we change our stigmatized perception of mental illness into one that prioritizes mental health in our budgets and beyond? How can we contribute to the conversation? We don’t all have to become mental health professionals. But as allies, we can and should speak up in our respective fields. We can be advocates for those who may feel as though they don’t have agency and cannot seek help. NAMI and Choices in Recovery recommend ways to change the mental health conversation in our country, which I’ve consolidated below:
  1. Use respectful language. Put the person before the illness – use phrases such as “a person with schizophrenia.” Never use terms like crazy, lunatic, psycho, retarded and correct people who do so.
  2. Provide professional development opportunities for staff, regarding diversity, mental health issues, and fostering an inclusive work environment. Include mental illness in discussions about acceptance of diversity, just as you would discuss cultural diversity, religious beliefs, physical disability, and sexual orientation.
  3. Become an advocate. Create awareness by writing letters to newspapers and media. Speak out and challenge stereotypes portrayed in the media. Take it upon yourself to inform your community about the truth of mental illness.
  4. Teach others about mental illness. Spread understanding that these are illnesses like any other.
  5. Become a member of the local chapter of NAMI or Mental Health America
  6. Attend conferences, seminars and events. NAMI just had their national conference in San Francisco. SAMHSA’s Annual Voice Awards will be in Los Angeles this August.
  7. Join a support group.
  8. Train to become a peer-to-peer or family-to-family educator.
  9. Contact your representatives. Read up on mental health policies. Write to your state and local representatives to educate them about mental illness, offer your opinion on a specific policy and urge them to vote on particular pieces of legislation.
  10. Vote! Your voice matters, so make it count. 
  11. Become mental health first aid certified *I added this one because I’ve discussed it a couple of times on this blog before.  

We have a long road ahead of us. But if we each latch onto a handful of the steps above, we can have more of an impact than we think.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. JohnMcAuliff says:

    Very good. Keep it up Ryann

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Ryann says:

      Thanks for reading, John! Appreciate all of your support, especially for your inspiration in calling myself a mental wellness warrior! Will continue to do so…


  2. Susan says:

    Thanks Ryann – I really enjoy reading your articles. Very informative and interesting. Keep up the good work.


    1. Ryann says:

      Thanks for continuing to read my posts. I’m trying my best to stay educated, and to educate others, on what we see in the media, and elsewhere in society. Please let me know if there’s anything you’d like to see me write about, too! I appreciate all input. 🙂


  3. Lynn Keltz says:

    In Pennsylvania, our Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumer’s Association is a aila me to anyone interested in fighting stigma and advocating for a more recovery oriented mental health system.


  4. It could be said that treatments are just as much apart of the the illness one might suffer, And it is what I hear often, As a sufferer I must also agree, There is no one way or pill that fits all. Yet the buddy system is working hard when it comes to big pharm and doctors. And in many cases only adds to problems or leads to one giving up on ever finding the right help. Labels are meant for what’s in a can. Not to belittle or neglect any person as a human being. Yet it is being done everyday. Through unjust and unfair actions across our nation. Real reform does not come with a in discretionary lack of understanding. Nor do the affects in most cases upon its sufferers medicated or not. Though until real reform is achieved in a way that allows freedom of choice in care and stability. We will remain many without hope and confined by the understanding of society. Sincerely Terry S. Bradley. Published poet, children’s book author, entrepreneur, and sufferer of mental illness. As a forty eight year old, undereducated, convicted felon, drawing a mental disability check. I can say I understand the system pretty well. And it is very broken in many ways. Still I achieved all of the before statement as a homeless man at forty five years old with only an e-mail name of Nubbiebee and a desire to never give up Hope. DREAM BIG, HOPE & BELIEF EQUALS THE POWER TO OVERCOME! This is my motto and my goals maybe impossible. But in reading this I’m sure you would agree Its only the tip of the iceberg of a lifelong story.


  5. Kathleen says:

    Ryann, I particularly appreciate the list of “how to contribute to the conversation” you included with this post. I will continue to check in with your blog. Thank you for your efforts to destigmatize mental health issues!


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