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Time to talk is now

Wingham Advance-Times editorial

The issue of mental health is very much on everyone’s mind these days.

Communities are gearing up for the annual Walk for Memories fundraiser, to help people with Alzheimer’s disease and their families. Alzheimer’s and related dementias used to be quite rare in days gone by, when few people lived long enough to get them. Not so these days. As vast numbers of boomers enter their senior years, Alzheimer’s promises to become if not the most serious health issue of the new millennium, then certainly among the most serious.

So why do we not only have no cure or effective treatment, but no national strategy on dementia, too little research and too few resources? What we do have is the Alzheimer Society, thank heaven. Staff and volunteers go above and beyond to do what they can. But they and the families they serve need a lot more from our government in the way of funding, especially for home care.

At present, people are still talking about the horrible tragedy in Connecticut just before Christmas, when an obviously troubled young man forced his way into a school and murdered 20 beautiful little children. Official sources have said little, but it is generally accepted that mental illness was likely a factor. We are told the killer had become more and more withdrawn in his adolescent years, and had little communication with anyone including family, except his mother. There are unconfirmed suggestions she, too, was at her wit’s end. The mental health situation south of the border is not all that different from here – too few resources, too little funding.

And then there is the sad case of the young woman who killed herself in her jail cell while guards watched. Without a doubt, she was mentally ill. And without a doubt, her treatment in prison hearkens back to Bedlam hospital (Bethlehem Hospital) at its worst, when the inmates were chained to dank walls, and treated like dangerous animals.

We like to think that we have come a long way since then, and in many ways, we have. We no longer subject people with mental illnesses to nightmarish treatments, or conduct horrendous experiments on them. Nor do we keep them locked away. More often than we would like to think, though, we just let them die in the streets, or jail cells.

When our government decided to close mental hospitals in this country, the theory was that modern medications and treatments made these facilities unnecessary – the people could be, and should be cared for in their own communities, through a well-coordinated system of health care professionals, clinics, community hospitals, social workers, agencies and volunteers.

If only it were so. That system did not, and does not exist. Just ask the parent desperate to get his or her child into a treatment program, only to be told there is a waiting list of over a year – or the program closed down due to funding cuts. Just ask the doctor on duty at a small rural hospital desperately scrambling to arrange a treatment bed for a person having a mental health crisis. Just ask the spouse of someone suffering from dementia who needs an extra couple of hours of home care a week. Just ask the police officer who knows a certain mentally ill “client” does not belong in jail, but arrests him or her anyway because there are no better options.

It is easy for a government to ignore a problem people are afraid to talk about. There is a stigma to mental illness that does not exist with “physical” illnesses. An episode of mental illness has sunk more than one promising political career, and continues to do so. People who would have no problem describing details of their treatment for, say, diabetes, would be afraid to admit to having an equally treatable form of mental illness.

Until we feel free to talk about mental illness, until we get rid of the stigma, we cannot successfully lobby for more funding for treatment and research. We cannot ensure people who suffer from mental illness get looked after with the appropriate care and compassion they would get if they suffered from cancer or heart disease.

Mental illness kills, and it maims. It breaks up families, and it ruins careers. It costs our entire community too much in terms of lost productivity and dealing with the consequences of mental health crises that could have been prevented.

The time to talk is now, before another sick person dies in jail, or freezes on a park bench, or gets shuffled aside by a health care system that lacks resources for treating mental illness.

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