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A Flawed System: Fixing Mental Health in America

by Kate Walz

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In 2013, the esteemed Creigh Deeds had his whole world turned upside down when he went from Senator to victim to a childless father.

One November night at their rural home in Bath County, Virginia, his gifted valedictorian son, Gus, attempted to stab his father and then committed suicide. All this happened after Gus was turned away from the hospital, after having been off his medication, when they claimed there were no beds available.

This horrific event prompted Deeds to take action. He’s introduced bills to, among other things, extend emergency custody in an ER from six to 24 hours and to create a computer database to list all the open psychiatric beds statewide.

“That makes absolutely no sense,” Deeds said. “An emergency room cannot turn away a person in cardiac arrest because the ER is full, a police officer does not wait to arrest a murder suspect or a bank robber if no jail space is identified.”

Our society has formed a stigma around mental illness that makes the disease more difficult to deal with, maybe even more than a physical one.

“It is much more difficult than saying to people ‘I’ve got cancer’ because they all acknowledge that cancer is not a thing you can do anything about, but with mental illness they’re like did you try?” said Elizabeth Breeden, the treasurer of the local Mental Health Association, which helps connect people with the resources they need for recovery. “There is a whole of attitude with mental illness that makes a person only tell the people they trust because it’s about their feelings, emotions, and behaviors.”

Until recently, mental health issues were diagnosed like cancer where the symptoms were identified and then a drug was administered to suppress those symptoms. Now, doctors look at causes and actual neurological difficulties and may not even give a patient medication, but connect them to resources like therapy and group sessions.

“Mental illness is a waxing and waning illness…that comes and goes, so that somebody can get their resources, be in good recovery, have good tools for maintaining being healthy and their illness can sweep through and grab them again,” said Breeden.

There is no doubt that the way mental health is handled in America needs reform. After all, people die from suicide just like any other disease, but suicidal thoughts, mental illness, and addiction are the only conditions where the victim is blamed. Virginia is a particularly bad place to be a mentally ill person because the state does not cover therapy or non-hospital medical attention with Medicaid and so many people fall in between that gap.

In the 1990s, Congress got rid of mental health institutions due to the bad connotation associated with them. Money was promised to go back into communities to help the mentally ill get back on their feet. However, most of that money has gone back into prison systems of which 33% of inmates are mentally ill. In fact, some people can’t afford their medication along with other necessities like housing, food and clothing and so they purposely go back into jail so that they can have their medications again. Since 2008, $4.5 million have been cut collectively from America’s health care systems.

Just within the high schools, there are multiple issues with how we handle mental health. With many obligations, pressures and variables swirling around students heads’ constantly, sometimes life can become too much to deal with. This is the time it is most important to communicate with friends or family. Yet finding someone to trust with the unnecessary secret of mental health is a Herculean task in itself.

Many students see their counselor as the person who creates their schedule and sends in their hard earned transcripts for colleges, but they have much more responsibility than that.

The counselors at Monticello are trained to talk to students about any problems they are having, including suicidal thoughts. However, it can be hard to build a strong enough relationship with them to feel comfortable enough to talk about such a personal issue since each counselor has so many students to guide. Although confidentiality is promised, a drawback for students might be that parents are notified when a student confesses they have been having thoughts of self-harm.

Therefore, Ms. Terrell, a counselor here, suggests groups for students struggling with similar issues to have discussions and to possibly calm their raging thoughts. She also suggests that teachers should be educated on the warning signs since they see students on a daily basis and know them on a more personal basis. There needs to be more mental health awareness and aid in our education system because it’s the not knowing that kills.

“There’s just a lack of equity in the way we as a society, and certainly as a government and insurance industry, medical industry, with the way we look at mental health issues.“ said Deeds

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