Mental health a serious public concern

Flowers and memorabilia are piled on Robin Williams Hollywood Walk of Fame star in Los Angeles after his apparent suicide. Mental health issues are pervasive in our current culture (Robert Gauthier/ McClatchy Tribune Information Services)

Flowers and memorabilia are piled on Robin Williams Hollywood Walk of Fame star in Los Angeles after his apparent suicide. Mental health issues, some leading to suicide, are pervasive in our current culture (Robert Gauthier/ McClatchy Tribune Information Services)

Earlier this month comedian and actor Robin Williams, known for his roles in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Dead’s Poet’s Society” and “Aladdin,” committed suicide.

His death resulted in many media tributes. Actors and other celebrities went to Twitter to tweet the memories of his performances and his life. They remembered his kindness, both on and off the set. Fellow Hollywood star Minnie Driver tweeted, “My heart’s broken. Robin was a beautiful, kind soul. Can’t bear that he’s gone.”

Billy Crystal gave an emotional tribute at Monday’s Emmy Awards and actress Kathy Bates told reporters that she wanted to dedicate her Emmy win to Williams after but found herself too nervous to do so.

On the flip side, another disturbing trend occurred. A Fox News anchor referred to Williams’ suicide as “cowardly.”

Matt Walsh, a conservative blogger, wrote that Williams died from a choice, not a disease.

These comments highlight a larger problem in the country in dealing with the mentally ill and contribute to a stigma placed upon people who deal with mental illness.

My friends and family members who have depression, bi-polar disorder or related illnesses tell stories about the things people say to them.

“Get over it” and “It’s all in your head” are common things they’ve been told. No one in their right mind would ever even dream of saying those types of things to someone with a physical illness. Could you image walking into a hospital room and telling someone with leukemia to just get over it?

That would be an incredibly insensitive comment in that situation. Yet with mental issues, society too often tells people to “get over it.”

Telling someone with depression that it’s just in their head, is about as useful as telling someone with lung cancer that the problem is in their lungs. Captain Obvious strikes again.

Of course it’s in their head. That’s why it’s called mental illness.

Another problem with the way we deal with mental illness is the amount of research that goes into it.

Social media has been filled with people pouring ice water on themselves to raise money for ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

According to the ALS Association website they have raised almost $94 million for their cause. The ALS association said that two in 100,000 Americans have ALS.

With a rough estimate of 300 million Americans, that puts the number of people with ALS close to 6,000.

According to a suicide prevention group called Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), suicide claims 30,000 lives a year.

For those keeping track that’s almost five times as many as ALS. The largest mental health advocacy group in the United States, the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), reported annual contributions for 2013 just over 8 million dollars.

Most people have heard causes like the “Race for the Cure” or “Walk for Diabetes.”

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds a walk called “Out of the Darkness” to raise money for suicide prevention and research. NAMI holds fundraising walks as well, but if you talked to your average person on the street,  they’ve probably heard of “Race for the Cure” where I bet not as many have heard of “Out of the Darkness.”

Now I don’t want to tell people what to do with their money, or what causes to donate to, and I’m not saying that people donating to ALS is a bad thing, but I’m left scratching my head at the amount of the money raised compared to the amount of people affected.

NAMI doesn’t even scratch the surface of how much money the ALS Association was able to raise, and suicide kills five times as many people.

The problem is too many agree with Walsh and see suicide as a choice and not a symptom of a disease.

NAMI claims that 20 percent of prisoners are mentally ill and 45 percent of homeless people suffer from mental illness.

Mental illness is affecting our society is more aspects than one. It’s about time people start taking it seriously and act more compassionately to those affected.

America has a prison problem and a homelessness problem and one way to start solving them will be to start treating mental health as a serious public health problem.

Maybe someday in the not-too-distant future there will be a gigantic viral social media fundraiser for mental illness.

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