Alva James-Johnson: Tackling our mental health crisis

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comApril 3, 2014 

We have a mental illness crisis in this country, and it's only getting worse.

It starts in the mind of an individual, then wreaks havoc on families, ill-equipped for the tumultuous psychological journey. In many cases, the symptoms eventually become public, in ways that make us uncomfortable. Bursts of anger, erratic behavior, rambling expression, disjointed thoughts, delusional episodes and suicidal tendencies.

Sometimes we just want to stay stuck in denial. But mental illness is something we have to acknowledge if we're ever going to fix the problem.

I know this from personal experience. I have a close adult relative who suffers from a mental illness, and I've seen the swings from sanity to excessive paranoia when she's off her medicine.

So when I hear about situations like the Wednesday shooting in Fort Hood, Texas, it hits close to home. According to officials, the shooter, Army Spc. Ivan Lopez, had mental issues. With a .45-caliber handgun, he killed three people and wounded 16 before taking his own life.

The situation is not unfamiliar.

Mental illness has also played a role in deadly shootings that took the lives of dozens at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the Navy Yard in Washington, the Aurora theater in Colorado and a supermarket parking lot in Tucson, Ariz.

While most people who suffer from mental illness are nonviolent, the frequency of such incidents raises concerns. It's especially disturbing for families struggling with the disease, which seems to be affecting more and more people.

"Nearly 60 million Americans experience a mental health condition every year," according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Regardless of race, age, religion or economic status, mental illness impacts the lives of at least one in four adults and one in 10 children across the United States."

And where do many of those individuals end up? In prison, on drugs, as prostitutes and/or homeless. Many are self-medicating and just trying to make it through every day.

In the case of my loved one, the situation never got that severe. But we had to jump through so many hoops to get her the help that she needed. We were told by mental health professionals that she had the right to be mentally ill if she wanted to and there was nothing we could do unless she became a threat to herself of somebody else.

Thank God, we were eventually able to convince a judge that she needed court-ordered intervention.

But what about those who fall through the cracks and don't have loved ones advocating tirelessly their behalf? Or who have not yet accepted their diagnoses and refuse to stay on medication?

I don't know the full story behind the most recent Fort Hood shooting, but it causes me to wonder if it could've been prevented.

According to the people at NAMI, everyone is affected by mental illness, and it's time to take action. They are promoting today's nationwide premiere of a film highlighting the issue. "Frankie & Alice" stars Academy Award Winning Actress Halle Berry and tells the story of a black go-go dancer who struggles with multiple personality disorder in early 1970s Los Angeles. In Columbus, the film will be playing at the Ritz 13.

If you get a chance to see the movie, take some friends and download the discussion book at www.nami.org. Then let's start a community conversation about mental illness. I'm ready to address a problem that's been plaguing our community too long. Who's with me?

Alva James-Johnson, reporter, ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.com.

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