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State of Mind: Stigma Still Slows Treatment of Mental Illnesses

Health advocates reach out to help rising number of adults coping with the blues.

Mental health advocates hope for more progress against one of their most daunting challenges: Convincing people to seek help for mental health and substance abuse problems as routinely as they do for hip fractures and heart attacks.

“New Jersey is making progress in mental health, but we still have a long way to go,” said Phil Lubitz, associate director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness NJ.

The persistent stigma associated with mental illness is a serious barrier to getting more individuals into treatment, said Carolyn Beauchamp, president and chief executive of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey, an affiliate of Mental Health America, which for the past 50 years has designated May as Mental Health Awareness Month.

It’s estimated that 1 in 4 American adults have a mental health problem at any given time, but as many as half who need help don’t seek it. Besides stigma, the factors experts cite as contributing to the treatment gap include inadequate education about mental illness and the cost of treatment, especially for the more than 1 million New Jerseyans who lack health insurance coverage.

Despite widespread consensus that physical and mental health are inextricably linked, Beauchamp said doctors may not ask questions about the patient’s mood during the annual physical, thus missing the opportunity for a routine mental health screening.

So in most cases, “we’ve left it up to people and their family members to recognize that something is wrong,” she said.

The Mental Health America website has a “mood monitor” survey that individuals can complete online to help them assess whether they are suffering from such disorders as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Beauchamp’s organization operates the New Jersey Mental Health Cares Help Line (866-202-4357), which guides individuals to appropriate treatment.

The long-term trend to keep people with mental illness in the community, rather than in psychiatric institutions, has helped to diminish some of the fear associated with mental illness, according to Debra L. Wentz, chief executive of the New Jersey Association of Mental health and Addiction Agencies.

There are about 2,000 people living in psychiatric institutions today in New Jersey, compared with about 15,000 in the 1970s. Wentz said individuals struggling with mental illness should not hesitate to seek treatment.

“Recovery is possible and many people live very full lives in the community,” Wentz said. “In the 1960s, if you had a serious mental illness you might have a long period, if not a lifetime, of being in an institution to look forward to. Most people want to live in the community, and for most people today, that is possible.”

New Jersey continues to move patients out of psychiatric hospitals and into community placement, and Beauchamp is among the mental health advocates urging the state to use the money saved to expand community-based supports and services. “We want people to be able to live in the community, to be employed and have lives like everyone else,” she said.

Lubitz noted that Gov. Chris Christie, “to his credit, has put a good deal of money into trying to create community placements for people who are currently in our state psychiatric hospitals.”

“We are moving ahead a little more quickly than some other states,” Lubitz said. But the capacity of outpatient services for mental illness is not growing fast enough. “Even with the additional resources we are putting into the community, the demand still outstrips the available resources.”

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