The time for mental health care reform is now
40,000 Americans die by suicide each year. 90 percent of those have at least one mental disorder. I was almost one of them.
October 6, 2014
I still remember the words of a friend who was by my side in the ER after I attempted suicide. It was seeing me there, he later told me, my mouth still black with charcoal and my eyes raw and red with tears, that he realized everything he had done to take care of me in my darkest hour still wasn’t enough to stop me from hurting myself.
Truth be told, he was exactly right: There is no single cure-all for depression.
Treatment for mental illness requires more than empathy and support. Even the most supportive friends and family lose loved ones to mental illness, and even the best therapists lose patients to suicide.
In 2012, President Obama challenged Congress to reform the national mental health care system. More than two years later, nothing has been done.
The death of Robin Williams reignited, if only momentarily, conversations around mental health reform. I was surprised in the days following his death by the remarks I saw and heard, even from my own friends.
“If only he knew how loved he was. If only he’d reached out for help.”
I struggle to understand how people can’t see that mental illness isn’t something you can just will away. Being sick is not selfish, and knowing you’re loved, even reaching out for help, isn’t always enough. I know, because I’ve lived it.
Before moving to Louisville, I attended Brigham Young University. BYU, respectfully, didn’t offer me an environment for positive personal growth. Admittedly, it took me too long to realize that.
BYU is a private Mormon college, and I hold the value of its education in high regard. But as my 22-year-old self struggled to make sense of a confusing collision of religion and sexual identity, the weight of my depression, paired with a series of toxic relationships, became too much to bear.
I knew I was loved and I sought out help. And even though I was going to therapy and taking my medication, I couldn’t get out of bed. I called out of work and skipped my classes. I couldn’t eat, but still went on seven, eight, sometimes nine mile runs at 4 in the morning, just to prove to myself that I still maintained some control.
My deteriorating emotional and mental state seeped into every facet of my life: falling behind in classes, losing credibility at work, extreme weight loss.
I had friends, some of whom I have since lost, who were the most generous, patient and understanding people I have ever met. Friends who would lie with me night after night, sometimes without exchanging a word, just so I knew I wasn’t alone.
In spite of a strong support system and access to resources to help me recover, things weren’t getting better. In fact, I only got worse.
Though we can’t know exactly why some see suicide as their only option, we do know that mental illness is taking the lives of too many people: too many brothers and sisters, parents, children and lovers.
We also know that access to mental health care is getting harder, not easier.
For some, the Affordable Care Act has helped bridge this gap. A provision allowing parents to keep children on their health-insurance plans has aided millions of young people to seek treatment.
Many others, however, remain uninsured for a number of legitimate reasons. Even those who carry coverage for mental health care struggle to find the help they need. As reimbursement rates continue to drop even further, many therapists are forced to take only out-of-pocket patients. This limits access to mental health care to the wealthy, effectively neglecting some of the most vulnerable of our population.
The need for mental health care reform is real. We can help foster this change by having open conversations and breaking down the stigmas that surround mental illness and seeking help.
This is why I have chosen to share my story.
Eventually, my depression got the best of me. I saw no hope for happiness. I was blinded to the beauty and opportunity in the world around me. I had lost my will to fight, and to no fault of my own or anyone of those who were so desperately trying to save me.
In the days, months and eventual years that ensued, I continued to battle the feelings of insecurity and inadequacy that accompanied my depression. I made progress and sometimes encountered setbacks. But I fought every day to break the harmful thought patterns and physical rituals I had become addicted to.
That is something I have learned about depression: Even when we learn how to cope with mental illness in healthy ways, our brains never forget how to be depressed. Even with all the right tools, we can still fall back into old habits. This is why inclusive mental health care reform is so important.
Just as diseases like diabetes require constant monitoring, those suffering from mental illness also deserve access to effective, holistic treatment. Chronic mental illness requires individualized medical attention, with access to affordable resources.
Four years have passed since I attempted suicide. And though I still struggle to forgive myself and accept forgiveness from those hurt by that experience, I never want to go back to the dark place depression led me.
I no longer feel guilty and flawed for being sick. I no longer believe that the more I hate myself, the more room it makes to be loved by someone else. I no longer surround myself with people who exacerbate my insecurities and uncertainties.
But these realizations didn’t come overnight.
It wasn’t one friend, one session with my therapist or one dose of my medication that inevitably saved my life. It was a combination of all these things. I recognize the role each played in helping me recover and am fortunate to have had access to them.
We can catalyze action now by initiating conversations about our experiences, successes and failures, and breaking down the stigmas. IU Southeast has organized a Mental Health and Wellness series this year to help do this.
We should be participating in these conversations. Finally, with midterm elections approaching, we can help fulfill President Obama’s challenge by electing candidates who will work to create reform now, rather than waiting for the next tragedy to take action.