Mental illness is the issue that no one wants to talk about, but so many people want to blame when it comes to terrible acts of violence.
“I think people want to point the finger because it’s easy. It’s just a topic that has been stigmatized for so long and so misunderstood, still misunderstood. People are always looking for simple solutions to problems and kind of a scapegoat,” said Amy Gamble, the Executive Director at NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Greater Wheeling.
In reality, you probably know someone who struggles with their mental health. 45 million Americans, one in five people, have a mental illness, most commonly depression and/or anxiety. 14 million people have a serious mental illness, and still, most of them are not violent, according to Gamble.
Of the approximate 45 million people who have a mental illness, only about 40 percent of them seek treatment.
“You know, people think mental illness, they think a lot of times of violence, they think of dangerous people, they think dangerous, nuts, looney, psycho, those kinds of words, and that is what keeps people from getting the help they need,” Gamble said.
Gamble adds there is no shame in having a mental health condition, and the sooner someone gets help, the better off they will be. She compares it to cancer, and ‘not letting it get to stage four.’
While it is true that some mass shooters and people who commit acts of violence have a documented history of mental health issues, Gamble says only three to five percent of violent acts are committed by someone with a mental illness.
“In fact, they are more likely to be the victim of crime than be the perpetrator,” Gamble said. She adds, “But there is a small percentage of people in that population who have unfortunately committed significant crimes. And that’s what paints the picture when those horrible tragedies happen that gives a perception to the public that mental health and violence are linked.”
And when it comes to raising our kids, the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” rings true.
“Because it takes many perspectives, many eyes, many to figure out exactly what is going on with the child,” said Shelby Haines, the Director of Special Programs at Marshall County Schools.
Haines said when she receives a call about a child who may be having trouble, they send an entire team to work on the issue. That team includes the parents, principal, counselors, general education teachers, special education teachers, nurses, school psychologists, and more.
Thanks to grants and the passage of a school levy, Marshall County Schools have had the funds to add additional counselors as a preventative resource. They have two county-based social workers who will even provide in-home support to students, if necessary.
During their weekly two-hour delays on Wednesday mornings, teachers and staff often times review statistics dealing with academics, behaviors, and students who may be likely to slip through the cracks.
While some students with behavioral or mental health issues are easy to pick out, Haines said they aren’t all necessarily the ones that need the closest attention.
“The kids who internalize their problems are the ones that I probably worry about the most because they don’t stand out. Those would be the kids who are more likely to slip through the cracks because they’re holding in behaviors,” Haines said.
Marshall County Schools also has a strong partnership with Youth Services System, who has recently taken over the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program. Two of the big programs they focus on are the Family Empowerment Program and an Expanded Youth Mental Health Grant, which provides someone at Moundsville Middle School to work with families and teams to get students the help they need.
Both Haines and Gamble agree that the younger kids get the message about mental health, the better. On average, about 50 percent of mental health issues will be diagnosed by 14, while 75 percent will be diagnosed by age 24.
NAMI has a signature program that operates in schools all over the northern panhandle of West Virginia. It includes peer-produced videos and content. At the end, students take an evaluation and Gamble says they have discovered that most kids are open to the idea of talking about mental health. She adds this presentation is often times the first time these students have had the conversation.
Parents and teachers should be on the front lines of recognizing symptoms.
“The key is not calling something a mental health issue if it is typical adolescent behavior. An example of that would be that adolescents start to withdraw from their parents when they start taking on the own sort of peer groups and things like that. So that might be different than a total withdraw,” Gamble said.
She adds compassion in sincerity are two of the biggest tools in fighting the stigma.
She also adds the media plays a role in exacerbating the mental health stigma. “I think with cable news, once something tragic happens that plays 24/7 for a really long time, and those messages get engrained in peoples mind.”
“Contrary to that, they’re not hearing information or they’re not hearing from mental health advocates, people who are living with mental illness, people who are living well, people who are living in recovery, who are doctors and lawyers and pilots and so many other things,” she added.
If you think someone you love may be battling anxiety or depression, or something more, a simple “are you okay?” can make all the difference.
Symptoms of depression include lethargy, a lack of motivation, loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, or being withdrawn.
Gamble said a good first step for anyone who thinks they may have a mental illness is to contact their primary care physician, who can then refer them to other places that will help.