The shocking scenes from Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012 put the issue of mental health at the forefront of our societal consciousness once again. The discussion of access to mental health services for all who need it is once again occurring in news articles, editorials, and TV mini-documentaries. With every horrific act of violence where the perpetrator suffered from a psychological disorder, we have repeatedly, as a nation, opined that mental health counseling should be available and affordable.
This counseling should not only be available, it should be aggressively promoted through the same venues that bring us discussions of its failure–print and electronic media, community meetings, workplace coffee lounges. Rather than just talking about the need for this counseling, we should be clearly informing where it can be accessed free of charge. There are five distinct reasons for this.
1. Many Have the Need
Mental health problems occur in approximately 26% of America’s population, which, according to the 2004 census, means about 57 million people suffer from identifiable psychiatric disorders. Severe mental illness occurs much less frequently (in about 6% of the population). Mental disorders result in the biggest number of disability claims. About half of those who suffer carry two or more psychiatric diagnoses.
2. Treatment is Expensive
Mental health care is expensive: in 2006 the overall cost of mental health treatment in America was 57.5 billion dollars, paid for by 36.2 million people. The cost for children’s treatment was greater than adults, at a per capita cost of nearly $2000.
3. Few Have the Funds
However, many in our country are unemployed or underemployed, with no health insurance and therefore no mental health coverage. Among those who are employed and have health insurance, mental health benefits vary widely. Many insurance companies have a “lifetime maximum” of benefits they will pay, which fall far short of the need for a family member with a serious and chronic mental disorder.
4. It Removes Hesitancy
Part of promoting mental health counseling is removing its stigma. The history of attitudes toward mental health treatment is that it is to be sought in the shadows of society and to be kept as a secret. We shy away from those who are afflicted in this manner, out of fear which stems from our ignorance. Perhaps if mental health counseling were promoted as openly as breast cancer or prostate cancer screenings, more would seek it. Mental health assessments could be integrated into pediatric “well-check” visits so that from early childhood on, there would be natural discussion of a child’s emotional as well as physical well-being.
5. It Protects Our Communities
Undiagnosed, untreated severe mental illness can sometimes result in violent acts that harm or kill others. Although this is the exception of mental health rather than the rule, any hurt to others that is preventable should be addressed. Stresses or disorders that threaten to brim over to violence could be alleviated. Additionally, a law called the Tarasoff Act requires mental health professionals to report specific threats of violence made within a counseling session (this law has been called into public view during the discussions of the Aurora, Colorado theater shootings).
Establishing free, easily accessible mental health care and aggressively promoting it through the news media and community public health announcements would result in more people who need treatment actually receiving it. It would perhaps prevent another Newtown. It most surely would bring mental health awareness to that we currently have for medical health issues, and make it something we can talk about naturally rather than re-earthing yet another empty discussion after something hurtful has once again happened.
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Darren Ligon is a family counselor and guest author at Top Counseling Schools, where he has contributed guides to top-rated online counseling degree programs.