Joel Mowrey: Focus on easing stigma, prevention of mental illness

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I have been doing a great deal of listening and reflecting in the past several months, hearing widely different perspectives about gun control versus putting guns in the schools, the influences of social media (television, internet, violent games) and mental health issues. I would like to share my professional opinions about the connection between mental health issues and violence and welcome your comments.

First, like physical health problems, all of us have mental/emotional issues and problems that we experience from time to time or even on a daily basis. Mental health issues are on a continuum, ranging from problems that are more severe and chronic (such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) to problems that are less intense and more situational (such as dealing with work stress). Mental health problems are a complex mixture of biological/genetic, environmental and psychological factors.

Second, most people are not violent, including people who have more severe and chronic mental health problems. I am concerned when I hear that people with "mental illness" are dangerous and society must be protected from them. These kinds of statements only add to the stigma surrounding people who are coping with mental health issues and can certainly get in the way of someone seeking help. For the small percentage of individuals whose mental illness is a factor that can lead them to be a risk to self or others, the majority of these individuals can be helped with mental health treatment that often includes psychotherapy and medication.

Third, as a mental health professional, I know that it is extremely difficult to predict when someone is at risk of harm to self or others. Unless a person directly tells us about his or her intentions or we have corroboration from another party of the person's intentions, our profession just does not have very exact tools or tests to predict dangerousness. We must simultaneously protect the rights of every individual while protecting the rights of the community to be safe.

My final point is that although I have my concerns that the discussion about mental health may actually create more problems through blaming and stigmatizing, I welcome the opportunity to talk about mental health and addiction issues. As a society, we need to have more mental health/addiction services that are easily and readily accessible in an accepting and welcoming environment that encourages people to seek help for any kind of health problem.

We also need more focus on prevention of problems, especially starting with children. I have always been a strong advocate for teaching children effective coping strategies to manage their own thoughts and feelings and how to resolve interpersonal conflicts in nonviolent ways that benefit all parties. Prevention efforts with children do start with parents and families and also involve the schools, particularly with issues of bullying. We also need to continue our efforts to train "gatekeepers," such as our police and educators among others, on how to identify individuals who are in need of help and how to safely de-escalate crisis situations and get people help.

We are all a part of the problem, especially if we do nothing, but we are also part of the solution. Fortunately in Portage County, we have a system of quality care for people with mental health/addiction problems through our contract agencies. But the need for these services is only increasing and our reduction in funding over the past several years has limited accessibility for these services.

What can we do? (1) All of us must continue to advocate for funding for mental health and addiction services from our local levy efforts to our state and federal representatives and senators. (2) We need to continue to address the stigma that creates misperceptions and interferes with people getting needed treatment. (3) On a daily basis, we need to model with our words and actions how we treat others, how we cope with problems, and how we resolve conflicts in ways that are civil, respectful, and nonviolent.

The Mental Health & Recovery Board is a county agency that funds, plans and monitors public mental health and substance abuse treatment services for Portage County residents. Last year, the board invested in services that helped more than 7,000 children, teens and adults. Primarily funded by local levies, the board also funds the 24-hour crisis services which handle more than 40,000 contacts each year. To contact the board, call 330-673-1756.

Joel Mowrey, Ph.D., is executive director of the Mental Health & Recovery Board of Portage County.

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