Editorial: Rethinking how we handle mental illness

Editorial: Rethinking how we handle mental illness

(File Photo)

Frequently in the “Harry Potter” books and movies, we find Ron rolling his eyes at something Hermione says or does while muttering, “She’s mental.” The intent is light-hearted: Ron is showing his exasperation at some action by the brilliant girl he liked. He doesn’t actually think she was mentally ill.

That’s one of the problems with mental illness: we joke about it when we know it’s not present, and often misunderstand it when it is.

The cranky neighbor who irritates us could struggle with chronic depression. The fearful child, labeled a “wimp” at school, may suffer from anxiety disorder. And the prospective mass murderer in our midst might fly under the radar for years, until the unthinkable happens and then everyone in hindsight says, “Well, he always was pretty odd.”

How we approach mental health in America must change. There need to be more in-patient beds available in hospitals and mental health facilities. This way, when someone like state Sen. Creigh Deeds’ son Gus, who suffered from severe mental illness, needs treatment, he or she can receive help instead of being turned away. That will require more mental health funding.

It also needs to become easier to involuntarily commit the severely mentally ill to an in-patient hospital, as the Washington Post’s June 28 front-page story, “Behind the yellow door, a man’s mental illness worsens,” so grippingly showed. That will require courage from politicians to tackle the difficult issue of limiting an individual’s freedom for their own good as well as society’s.

And we all need to get better educated about mental illness. Various organizations offer regular first aid training to students, teachers, camp workers and others. People who work with children are rightly taught to look for signs of physical abuse. But training is rare on how to look for signs of mental illness — and what to do if we spot it.

Fortunately, mental health first aid training is available in Alexandria, for free, to interested residents. The classes, taught through the city’s department of community and human services, offer groups of up to 20 participants training on how to de-stigmatize mental illness, how to recognize symptoms of illness and the appropriate responses to take.

The classes, instituted in the wake of the Deeds family tragedy and partially funded by Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center, are slated to run through June 2015.

This program should be continued indefinitely and similar training should be provided in more places, particularly to teachers, managers in businesses, government officials and parents.

Better understanding of mental illness might just help us identify someone who is a threat to others before tragedy strikes. Even more likely, it might help us be more compassionate toward those who suffer in our midst.