Spring is a time for new beginnings. This year, let’s celebrate the season with a new approach to America’s mental health — one that will save Americans much shame and suffering even as it offers fresh, exciting ways to advance U.S. medical treatment.
Scientists are learning amazing things about the brain, mood disorders and mental illness. Studies are proving the connections between mental health and physical well-being.
Yet many outdated attitudes remain. Millions of American adults and teen-agers still worry that if they seek care for minor or major mental health problems, they might lose their jobs, their housing or their health benefits.
Illnesses centered in the brain can range from the minor upheaval of a temporary mood disorder to a serious chronic condition such as autism or schizophrenia. The spectrum of disorders is matched only by the spectrum of people affected by mental illness: During any given year, 51 million Americans will have a mental disorder.
I know how important good mental health care can be because I personally benefited from it.
My husband and I already have shared our positive experience with family counseling after our son’s 1989 automobile accident. But when the crisis was over and all was better, I found out something many women discover at such turning points: I had been taking care of the emergency so well that I had not been taking care of myself.
I needed to talk about what I had gone through. I turned to a trusted counselor who saw that my sadness called for extra support and recommended that I be treated for depression. I am so glad I followed her advice. The conversations and treatment let me return to my old self and do a better job as a worker, wife and mother.
Depression can affect anyone at any age. A high school student named Susan told me, “Kids who are depressed or suicidal usually aren’t obvious about it. They keep smiling and don’t give any clues.” At least, her sister didn’t before she tried to take her own life.
Many older people diagnosed as depressed are responding well to anti-depressants. Rose is one. A savvy 90-year-old in Maryland, she was happily looking after herself in her own home. After the loss of a dear friend, her heart condition deteriorated, and she was placed in a nursing home. Fortunately, doctors found that Rose actually was depressed, which had led her to neglect her heart medication. After treatment, she returned to her own home.
Bill is a midlevel manager at a small company. Work became stressful. Bill’s attention span shortened. He snapped at co-workers. His blood pressure escalated; his work suffered. With the aid of an unusually enlightened employer, Bill sought help and was treated for a mood disorder. Soon his work performance was as good as ever.
In traveling around the country, I have met so many people who have been successfully treated for depression and so many more who are afraid to come forward. I hope after reading this fewer people will be afraid to get help.
We have taken steps to integrate good mental and physical health care by passing the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill, which helps people keep their health insurance when they change jobs, and the 1996 Mental Health Parity Act, which helps ensure that people with mental-health needs get equal treatment. And on June 7 the White House is hosting the first-ever White House Conference on Mental Health, which will explore cutting-edge programs and treatments.
We need to continue building on the best of the new connections being discovered between the mind and the body. The data are conclusive: Mental well-being helps keep you from getting physically sick.
Good preventive care that helps support emotional well-being also will save money. For example, Ernst Berndt at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that the annual $44 billion cost of depression equals the cost of coronary heart disease.
But even more important for American families is the prospect of having a health care system that focuses on helping us to stay healthy in every way, rather than waiting for us to fall ill before we can seek treatment.
So let’s move our medical care into the 21st century and encourage it to look at how our minds and emotions affect our bodies and our ability to recover well from surgery and disease. Let us learn all we can from the medical experts documenting the link between mental states and physical health and then make good policies out of their findings. Let us encourage affordable counseling and medically based support groups that can stave off physical or psychological problems.
Let us explore elementary school programs that teach children how to manage their emotional development in healthy ways, thus lowering the incidence of drug addiction, suicide and violence in adolescence.
And, just as importantly, let us talk about mental health treatment in an up-front, matter-of-fact way so everyone can get care in an America where doing so is seen as it should be: no big deal.
This article was originally published on May 7, 1999.