Time to focus on mental illness

I’m sure as members of a caring community, we would be outraged if we did not have the medical resources to treat 90 percent of the people in Shelby County diagnosed with cancer.

Well, when it comes to providing treatment to those with a diagnosable mental illness, we could be in even worse shape. The Surgeon General estimates that approximately 26 percent of American adults and 20 percent of children have a mental illness.

If you apply this statistic to the 2009 census estimates for the population of Alabama, that would be well over a million people. Apply the same to Shelby County, and indications are that approximately 47,000 people are suffering with mental illness.

According to Alabama’s Division of Mental Illness Services, only about 4,000 people are treated annually by state-operated facilities while another 100,000 are served by certified community-based programs.

That leaves more than 90 percent of people with mental illness without services.

Even if another hundred thousand were served by private entities, that still leaves more than 80 percent of Alabama citizens with mental illness without treatment. Private providers serving even this relatively small proportion is unlikely because for many it is not immediately profitable, in part due to the terrible coverage insurance company’s offer for these disorders, if they offer any coverage at all.

What a waste of human potential and productivity, particularly when you consider the findings of the Global Burden of Disease Study conducted by the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and Harvard University.

Results indicate the effects of mental illness places a larger burden on established market economies than all cancers combined. This is probably the result of it being largely neglected and ignored in most societies, despite the recent attention it has gotten locally due to the start of an innovative mental health court and fallout from the BP oil disaster.

The cause of mental illness is no longer a mystery. It is a biological disorder of brain functioning. As a result, the prognosis for recovery for individuals who receive the appropriate pharmacological and counseling support is very good.

Given the recent advances in neuroscience, there is no need for mental illness to remain the primary reason why people between the ages of 15-44 become disabled.

We can turn this trend around by putting mental illness front and center in the public health agenda, including it as part of primary care, and providing adequate funding to public non-profit organizations charged with providing mental health services to our communities.

Kimberly Barrett is vice president of student affairs at the University of Montevallo.