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:
From the system-side, it is difficult to provide treatment without consent.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Teach others about mental illness. Spread understanding that these are illnesses like any other.
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.
Join a support group.
Train to become a peer-to-peer or family-to-family educator.
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.