Society fails to meet needs of mentally ill

“Mental illness” is not a single illness. There are many mental illnesses. There are anxiety disorders, mood disorders, substance-related disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, trauma and stress-related disorders and psychotic disorders, among others. Most people with mental illness are nonviolent, exercise good judgment, move about freely in the community and are willingly treated in office settings.

Some people, however, experience hallucinations and delusions. They may not attribute their unusual beliefs, experiences and behavior to a mental disorder and therefore believe “nothing is wrong.” These people with serious mental illness do not endorse the benefits of treatment. Their high-risk behaviors are informed by their voices and false beliefs. Use of alcohol and other drugs compounds their impaired judgment. They do not want to be symptomatic, but a brain disease affects them in ways that lead to impaired ability to care for themselves.

Our society fails to meet the needs of these people. They need and will benefit from intensive, state-of-the-art treatment that is available in hospital settings. Medications are effective in controlling symptoms, improving quality of life and protecting against relapse. On becoming less symptomatic and more able to live safely in the community, they can move to a less restrictive setting. Even then, a small number will benefit from Assisted Outpatient Treatment that is court-ordered (known as Kendra’s Law).

If we are committed to doing the best for people with serious mental illness, we need to offer an array of services that range from inpatient to outpatient, that include effective medications and therapy, that offer safe, supported housing, that provide vocational and socialization opportunities and that offer improved quality of life.

In the best of all worlds, treatment will be non-coercive and informed. Rarely, though, society will need to overcome a person’s failure to acknowledge his/her mental illness and offer treatment in an environment that preserves both the safety and the dignity of an impaired individual. Anything less is inhumane and risky.

Stephen Dvorin, M.D.

President, NAMI Rochester

Irene Turski

Vice President, NAMI Buffalo