Tragedies such as that at the Sandy Hook Elementary School can have positive consequences if they cause us to reflect on our problems as a society. David DeWitt's Commentary in Monday's News on the need to revisit gun control was spot on. And, as a member of Athens' great chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I would suggest that another valuable line of reflection would be what we can do to help the Adam Lanzas of our community – and their families – before mental illness leads to tragedy.
While it is true that only a very tiny percent of those with mental illness will commit violent acts, I can assure you that all those afflicted and their families suffer tremendous pain. But, in most cases, it's simply a matter of a chemical imbalance in their brains. With modern medication and proper treatment many afflicted persons can recover. Yet, over half of the mentally ill among us are receiving no treatment.
Though this country and this state should do more for that suffering population, let's focus on Athens where we, as citizens, can have the greatest impact. On the positive side, every time it comes up, our wonderful community passes a mental health levy. This helps finance a number of important public and private recovery services which save or mend lives.
But the levy is not enough. As elsewhere, one in five Athenians will suffer from mental illness at some time in their lives. If that seems an exaggeration it's only because most of those afflicted and their families are inclined through a false sense of shame to suffer in silence.
There is such stigma against mental illness that people fear telling friends, relatives, and even mental health professionals. For example, approximately 270,000 Post-911 war veterans with PTSD remain untreated – largely because of the false shame of admitting to having a mental illness.
In our small community there are lots of things we can do to fight stigma and reach out to the afflicted and their friends. For starters, as individuals, we can visit the afflicted in hospital – just as we would with friends with cancer or a broken hip. And we should give moral support to their families.
In addition, our local public and private institutions – higher education, faith community, and service clubs alike - can do much more:
First, mental illness is one of the most common forms of illness especially among college students. Professors might consider putting a paragraph or two at the end of their syllabi discussing mental illness and urging those with it to access the campus services available to them. As a professor, I did this and was amazed to find that, even in small classes, I always had students who benefitted from those paragraphs. Professors and administrators can also do more of what some do already – asking NAMI members and persons in recovery to speak on campus.
Second, though they have helped, our service clubs can also do more. They can invite speakers in the area of mental illness. NAMI would be happy to help. And they might consider raising funds to help NAMI in special projects such as bringing more outside speakers to our NAMI Lecture Series at the Athens Library and to the annual Crisis Intervention Training for regional police and other first responders. CIT, so far, has trained around 250 officers to recognize persons in a mental health crisis, to deescalate, and to take them to safety. NAMI pays for most outside CIT speakers.
Third, the faith community is wonderfully positioned to be even more helpful. It is a statistical impossibility that any congregation in Athens would be anywhere near free of mental illness. But currently most of the many families afflicted by mental illness probably suffer in silence. Given that one of their major callings is to minister to the suffering, clergy are in a special position – individually or as a group – to be of help. And NAMI Athens, in turn, is both equipped and very interested in assisting Athens' clergy in this respect. We would be happy to talk in adult Sunday school classes. Even better, we could organize for groups of clergy free half-day or day-long seminars on mental illness. It would be a great alliance.
Finally, family members should reach out directly for the help they need by turning to NAMI. Call us at 593-7424; see our webpage, namiathensohio.org; come to our confidential bimonthly Support Group meetings; take our free, confidential, 12-week, Family to Family night courses; and attend the talks in NAMI's Lecture Series at the Athens Library. You'll find you're not alone and you will be much better equipped to help yourself and your loved one.