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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

‘Mental health awareness’ isn’t pretty

Americans love a lot of weird things: the KFC Double Down, “”Keeping Up With the Kardashians,”” and “”tweeting”” things, to name a few. But one of the weirdest American obsessions is with “”awareness”” months.

Take October: This month marks, among a host of other issues, Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Month. Of course, supporting breast cancer research and celebrating the civil rights strides of the LGBT community are important, even if it is odd to relegate these pursuits to a mere 31 days.  

October also marks National Mental Health Awareness Month, which is built around World Mental Health Day, sponsored by the World Federation for Mental Health. But for all October’s hype surrounding breast cancer awareness and LGBT rights, mental health awareness barely gets mentioned, in October or otherwise.

That’s because, for all their love of awareness months both bogus and serious, Americans squirm uncomfortably at the idea of the mentally ill.When many people think of mental illness, they envision television commercials touting anti-depressants. In those ads, attractive people pout and rub their temples in hazy, poorly lit settings. Then a magic pill makes the attractive people smile, play with a dog and turn on some lights. It’s easy and awesome.

Those commercials, and therefore most people’s idea of mental illness, are seriously flawed in a number of ways. For one thing, it’s obviously not that simple to treat depression, a serious affliction affecting millions of people. Few sufferers find the perfect medication and buy a beautiful golden retriever overnight.

The larger flaw, though, is the idea that most mentally ill people are privileged enough to seek treatment for their ailments.

In reality, the face of mental illness is often ugly and scary. Homeless shelters and correctional facilities are overflowing with seriously sick human beings, who couldn’t get help for their mental illnesses if their lives depend on it — which often, tragically, is the case.

In the last two days, three people have been killed in officer-involved shootings in Tucson. At least two of those people have been characterized as mentally ill; one had recently been released from the Arizona State Hospital, according to an Oct. 24 report in the Arizona Daily Star.

In all three cases, the men pulled weapons on law enforcement officers, at which point those officers shot and killed them. Fault does not lie with the police who fired; they did what they had to do to protect themselves and their fellow officers.

The tragedy lies in the fact that these men, who were clearly disturbed, had to die at the hands of law enforcement officials rather than receive the help they so desperately needed.

Joseph E. Molina, the victim in one of the shootings, had a long history with the Arizona criminal justice and mental health care systems. He was diagnosed last year with paranoid schizophrenia, at which point he had already had several run-ins with the law, according to the Daily Star.

He was arrested for hijacking a city bus in 2009, a crime he claimed voices in his head had told him to do. After bouncing back and forth between jail and the state hospital, Molina was released in August. It is speculated that he ran out of his psychiatric medication; defendants are provided with just five days’ worth of medication when they’re released from jail, and told they must continue treatment on their own, the Daily Star reported.

But people like Molina, people who are fighting not just poverty and a criminal record, but voices in their heads and a host of terrifying phobias and paranoid thoughts, are incapable of seeking help on their own. If someone, whether it be a social worker, parole officer or just good Samaritan, had followed up with Molina and helped him get the medication and treatment he needed, perhaps his life could have been saved. The officer who shot him would have been spared the responsibility of killing another human being.

Mental illness isn’t clear cut or easy. The mentally ill are often dangerous, unstable people that many feel aren’t deserving of our help or attention. They’re stigmatized and marginalized because their minds work in ways mentally healthy people can’t comprehend.

Mental Health Awareness month is a shiny, PR-friendly response to an ugly and pervasive problem. Because in reality, most Americans don’t want to be aware of mental illness and those afflicted with it. They’d rather be far, far away from it.

 

— Heather Price-Wright is the opinions editor of the Daily Wildcat. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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