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Blog Posted in avatar   Jonathan Farrell's Blog

Support Groups are helpful. Yet some issues are not so easlily resolved by talking

By Jonathan Farrell
Posted Mar 24, 2013 in Health
Talking about complicated family issues is not easy, especially when it has to do with mental illness. Fortunately, there are support groups out there that can help. One such group is NAMI - the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Founded in 1979, NAMI has established itself as the most formidable grassroots mental health advocacy organization in the country.
My siblings and I attended a local chapter meeting here in San Francisco. This group meets once a month and it is open to everyone who wants to talk about their particular issues.
Similar to any support-group program or outreach, NAMI offers a sounding board for people suffering with a family member on a variety of conditions and diagnosis.
According to NAMI, the statistics of the number of people suffering from some form of mental illness in the USA is close to 60 million.The National Institute of Mental Health estimates is about 26 to 57 million people in the nation.
This reporter thinks one of the reasons why the stats fluctuate varies depending upon the conditions. But another reason I think, might very well be a lack of diagnosis. That of course opens up another painful part to the discussion. It is very difficult to get someone with problems to see a doctor.
Listening to the life-story accounts of the people at the meeting was heart-breaking. Yet there was one aspect that kept being mentioned over and over. "There is little help out there when a person with a mental illness gets critical." This is especially so when trying to seek help here in California. The State laws are so complicated, that the main focus it seems is to ensure no one is hospitalized against his or her will.
Obviously, there was a time when anyone might be hospitalized or detained for even a hint of mental disorder or illness. And, movies like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "The Snake Pit" and more recently, the movie, "A Brilliant Mind," are a well-known example.
Yet, despite that, in generations past, there were caring facilities, (amid the horrific places) that could manage the situation with mentally ill people in need of treatment. What was often feared, like any pioneering effort in medicine, was the fact that so little was known.
Around the country and in various parts of the world, hospitals and "sanitariums" were dedicated to help people recover from mental illness. All that changed dramatically in the 1980's when then President Ronald Reagan disbanded much of the mental health outreach systems in an effort to reduce costs. Ironically, his two terms as president saw an increase in military defense spending as the order of the day was "Star Wars" defense. Reagan ignored some of the diplomatic groundwork set forth by the Nixon/Ford Administration.
The topic of mental health services during and after President Reagan was mentioned by several at the NAMI meeting I attended this past March 13. Other than someone clearly being a danger to self or others, (Code is a "5150") few people can get help for a mentally ill family member. If that person refuses help, then professionals are not permitted by law to intervene.
But what about the disturbance to home and community that the person is causing? Let's be honest, many of the homeless we encounter on our nation's streets are people suffering from some form of a mental illness. In some instances the only time such a person in that condition gets attention is if they break a law or commit a crime. Sadly, the amount of mental illness in prison's according to human rights groups like Human Rights Watch is increasing.
And, with the number of war veterans returning from combat as the conflict in the Middle East continues, mental illness in some form is not just going to disappear all by itself. Thankfully, the US military is working to address the growing need of veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Yet, for the average civilian population a dedicated outreach like the ones at VA hospitals is not there.
And so for family and communities who are suffering with the person, it will have to escalate to the point of "a crime" before that person with mental illness gets any real help? This is painful to recognize. Many people in the group noted that it took something like that before their loved one even got a diagnosis. And, speaking of diagnostic labels, what do they all mean? Really, let's get this understood in everyday terms. Perhaps the most common of mental illnesses is depression. But in what form? Post-traumatic stress, postpartum depression, bi-polar, there is a list. With regards to the member in my family that is mentally ill, I have my own theories. That I will express later in another blog article. And, I am sure I am not the only one who has observed certain aspects to a mental illness that doctors seem to overlook or dismiss.
Yet, the question remains, why does it take an extreme crisis to get help?
While the support group at the local chapter of NAMI did offer some help, for me, it was simply another support group. Some of the people there had situations that would overwhelm me entirely. And, yet I was able to recognize their sense sorrow as well as helplessness. One aspect that NAMI focuses upon is that "You are not alone in this..." There is hope and groups like NAMI give witness to that hope.

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