Did you know that this month (April) was Autism Awareness Month? Quite possibly, especially if you watched any news. Many channels and news outlets have covered the month with the kind of zeal that probably made many autism activists proud.
Did you know that next month will have National Alcohol & Other Drug-Related Birth Defects Week, Anxiety Disorder Screening Day, Children’s Mental Health Month, Childhood Depression Awareness Day, Schizophrenia Awareness Week, National Mental Health Counseling Week, National Mental Health Month, and National Suicide Awareness Week? Probably not. You shouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t know that any of these existed or didn’t know when they were celebrated. They are almost never discussed.
I understand that Autism and Autism-spectrum disorders are important and are being diagnosed at an increasing rate. I don’t understand or appreciate that other mental health problems are often ignored or given less precedence. They are not less important. They are not less of an issue for the country or the world. They are just dismissed as being irrelevant.
So how irrelevant are these problems? Let’s see.
Children born to alcoholic and addicted mothers are more likely to suffer from conduct disorder (sometimes a precursor to sociopathy), depression, ADHD, physical problems, and become addicts themselves. They are more likely to have disruptive school experiences and get expelled or end up dropping out of school. They are also more likely (14% as kids and 60% as adults) to end up in legal troubles than children of mothers who didn’t drink.
Anxiety disorders which range from specific phobias to obsessive-compulsive disorder. They are so irrelevant that in a given year, about 18% of American adults seek treatment for them. Almost 1/5th of the adult population is suffering from them, so we give them a day to find out what’s going on to cause them such anxiety and stress. They occur with other problems, physical and mental, and can be debilitating. Some, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, can also cause the sufferer to become violent.
How unimportant is awareness of childhood mental illness? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Research shows that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. While the repercussions of these disorders can affect children for the rest of their lives, the knowledge about the significance of these problems is limited for some people. Some doctors are even unable to determine if the hyperactive kid you see in your kid’s class has ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Schizophrenia, or some other disorder. Studies about these disorders in children aren’t highly publicized, with the exception of some related to ADHD, and any medicines used to treat them are often greeted with public condemnation and cries of over-medicating children.
Childhood depression is so insignificant that it can lead to the “unexplained” suicides that seem to show up in the news from time to time. It is also so unimportant that kids end up turning to forms of self-medication ranging from illegal drugs to alcohol to things like “the choking game”. They can also retreat into behaviors that include cutting, burning, starving themselves, binging/purging, etc.
We all understand schizophrenia, right? It’s well portrayed on television as a goofy disorder that is extremely rare and leads to extreme acts of violent behaviors in every case. If you think that it is rare, then please note that approximately 0.5-1.0% (depending on the country) of people suffer from the disease. The number of people diagnosed with it every year will be 1 in 4,000 or 1.5 million people per year worldwide. That may seem small when compared to the total world population, but it is a lot higher than more sympathetic disorders like Multiple Sclerosis, Insulin-dependent diabetes, and Muscular Dystrophy. The earlier someone is diagnosed and treated for schizophrenia, the better. Though it is often diagnosed in late adolescence and early adulthood, it can occur at as young as five years of age and teens who suffer from it will have a 50% higher rate of attempted suicide. Without medication, the relapse rate is 80% within 2 years, but with treatment the relapse rate can be cut in half. Of people diagnosed with schizophrenia, after 10 years, only 25% completely recover, while others either improve, are hospitalized, or are dead (usually from suicide). The numbers are virtually the same 30 years post diagnosis. Schizophrenia contributes to around one-third of the entire homeless population in the United States.
Schizophrenia has been considered the most chronic, debilitating and costly mental illness and costs $63 billion per year (30% goes to direct treatment, while the rest covers caregivers, social services and legal costs). Most schizophrenics cannot work and have to depend on public assistance. The cost of serious mental illnesses are expected to rise $2.6 billion per year. And even with all of these facts, schizophrenia receives a fraction of what other (often less prevalent) disorders receive-$74.65 per person compared with $2240.88 for HIV, $476.26 for lung cancer, $325.45 for cervical cancer, and $274.14 for multiple sclerosis. It does receive more, though, than bipolar disorder, depression, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder which receive $25.95, $18.60, $5.88, and $2.61 per person, respectively.
The belief that schizophrenia is a disorder that causes extreme violence is a myth. People with the disorder are more likely to harm themselves than others. Most schizophrenics do not act violently, but end up being withdrawn and want to be left alone. The things that raise the risk of violence are drug and alcohol abuse, especially if the disease is untreated. (Drug and alcohol abuse are also more likely to make mentally healthy people commit acts of violence.) Twenty percent of people in jail and prisons are seriously mentally ill, but the vast majority of people with schizophrenia are more likely to be charged with misdemeanors. The numbers are higher for female inmates than for male inmates.
So why should we be more open to acknowledging mental illnesses? Half of the people who suffer from severe mental health problems have received no treatment for their problems in the last year. The majority are unaware of their illness and do not seek treatment. In 45% of people who acknowledged their problems, their reasons for not seeking treatment included wanting to solve their own problems, thinking the problem would get better on its own, treatment was too expensive, they didn’t know where to get help, the help wouldn’t actually do any good, and health insurance would not cover treatment.
I know it is unrealistic to expect the world to give attention to some of the mental health problems that exist. I also know that there would be people who would complain if advocacy for schizophrenics and bipolar patients became more commonplace. I would hope, though, that the idea that helping a group of practically unrepresented people would appeal to the common decency of the populace. I guess, though, that it might be too socially unacceptable to help these people, though.