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My turn: Dispelling the stigma and myths about mental illness

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From page A4 | March 19, 2014 |

Charles-Heathers Patricia

Patricia Charles-Heathers

Chances are you know someone with mental illness. It could be a friend, family member, neighbor or acquaintance. Studies show that about one in four people will experience some kind of mental health issue in their lifetime.

Mental illness is actually quite common, and yet we as a society seem to be uncomfortable even discussing mental health issues. Why is that?

The truth is that it’s a normal human reaction to shy away from discussing things that are uncomfortable or unknown. If a friend is suffering from depression, or more severe form of mental illness, we often aren’t sure what to say or how to help. If we, ourselves, are depressed or have mental health issues, we fear what others may think of us.

The problem with shying away from the discussion about mental health is that it only makes the situation worse. Ignoring mental health issues doesn’t make them go away. In fact, mental illness left untreated usually escalates. This can result in long-term suffering for the individual and their family, and impact the entire community.

Not everyone needs intensive mental health services. Each person is different and their treatment plan should be tailored to meet those needs. The job of mental health professionals is to help assess those needs with the client and develop a plan of action together best suited for that individual.

Some people can benefit from medication, while others don’t need it. Some people need long-term counseling, while others only need to speak with a counselor, pastor or trusted person a couple of times.

Many people can benefit from being part of a support group where they can discuss their issues with others who have similar problems. There is comfort in knowing you are not alone.

My wish would be to end the stigma associated with mental illness so people can get the help they need.

I’d also like to dispel some of the myths about mental illness. Common myths are that people with mental illness can’t hold jobs, are unable to follow rules within society, are violent, addicted to drugs and either homeless or need to be institutionalized. While some people with mental health issues are indeed homeless or struggling with drug addiction, the vast majority of people seeking mental health services don’t have these issues.

Most people with mental illness have jobs and homes and are productive members of society. In the best case scenario, they are also getting the support they need through their health care providers, friends and family.

At El Dorado County Mental Health, we work with our community partners to ensure that those needing mental health services in our county receive them. We strive to ensure quality services are accessible, recovery-oriented and respectful. We conduct education programs for the community, including the successful “Mental Health First Aid” training series that is offered across the County.

We also manage a 24-hour mental health crisis team to respond to emergencies. Our crisis workers and counselors have responded to schools, workplaces and other locations over the years to offer counseling and support to individuals directly impacted by emergencies. For example, we sent a team to Schnell School after the school shooting several years ago.

In addition, we operate the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF) to provide care for people experiencing a mental health crisis who need intensive inpatient care.

As a public agency, El Dorado County Mental Health has a responsibility to provide services for people who might otherwise slip through the cracks. This includes people without health insurance or who can’t access mental health services for various reasons.

Our mental health services are focused on a wellness recovery model that encourages clients to actively participant in their recovery plan. The plan may include medication, counseling, support groups and/or group activities.

Both facilities operated by El Dorado County Mental Health (one in Diamond Springs and one in South Lake Tahoe) include Wellness Centers. The Wellness Centers provide a safe and supportive environment. Clients can attend support groups, enhance their life and job skills and learn about community resources. For many clients, the Wellness Centers offer critical social interactions that may be missing in their lives.

The good news is that mental health is treatable. Studies show the earlier a person seeks out mental health services the better chances for their recovery.

As a society, we need to recognize that our brothers, sisters, friends and neighbors need our understanding, not our judgment, when it comes to talking about and seeking mental health services. Let’s work on that together.

As leaders in our community, including residents living in El Dorado County, county leaders and city leaders, we all have the responsibility to the mental health community to assist in reducing the stigma and educate the public about the myths associated with mental illness.

Patricia Charles-Heathers, Ph.D., is the assistant director of El Dorado County Mental Health Services.

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