The Mentally Ill Need a Champion

I’m in a conundrum.

I am very in favor of gun control. I am very in favor of increasing healthcare services for the mentally ill.

I am also very in favor of de-stigmatizing mental health issues and getting to a point where we, as a nation, acknowledge the prevalence of mental illness among our neighborhoods, workplaces, families, and congregations.

And by “acknowledge,” I mean accept that mental illness is something that can and does effect anyone from any walk of life, any faith, and any socioeconomic status. And most importantly to the current discussion, acknowledge that severely mentally ill people only account for 3-5% of violent crime. Approximately 26% of the American population has a mental illness, and only 6% (1 in 17) has a severe mental illness.

What the mental health movement needs is a champion. Someone who is unafraid to talk about his/her illness, who has a friendly face, a humble nature, and who looks “faultless” in the eyes of onlookers. The mental health world needs a Ryan White.

I’ll never forget seeing Ryan White on TV when I was a little girl. I heard him tell the talkshow host (Oprah, I think) that you can’t get AIDS from spit. You can’t get AIDS from a toilet seat. You can’t get AIDS from hugging or even kissing someone. The list went on and on, and I was absolutely blown away. I thought for sure you could get AIDS all the ways he said I couldn’t. And he wasn’t gay. And he didn’t use drugs. Earth shattering stuff for a little girl who somehow, somewhere, had heard just the opposite.

Who doesn’t know those things now? AIDS is still stigmatized, but Ryan White did so much to bring it to the forefront of public conversation in a completely different way than it had been before. He forever changed how AIDS is treated and perceived.

Who will that person be for mental illness? Many famous people have come forward with their story of mental illness, yet to the best of my knowledge, no one has been able to champion the cause of de-stigmatizing mental illness the way Ryan White did for AIDS.

So what am I to think of the current gun control debate that makes mental illness a criminal justice issue rather than a public health issue and will cause many Americans to perceive mental illness as something to be deeply afraid of? That may cause people to avoid seeking treatment and that will further demonize and marginalize those who suffer from mental illness?

Probably what so many professionals and advocates in the mental health field have thought as the debate rages on: this isn’t how we wanted it to happen, but we’ll take what we can get.