It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week. Let’s talk about mental health care in this country.
A couple of years ago, my psychological medication needs were being met by a psych nurse at a clinic in Albuquerque. To obtain her master’s degree, she had done an incredibly brave, heart-wrenching, and eye-opening research project.
She interviewed women who had either attempted to, actually injured, or even killed their children. I don’t know the specific details of the questions she asked or what exactly her goal was when she began. But I do know that what she found was that a very large percentage of these women had sought help in the days and weeks leading up to their crime. Some women had specifically sought psychological help through clinics, psychiatrists, therapists, counselors of all kind. Others had gone to emergency rooms or their family doctor. They were women who knew that they needed help, who knew that everything was not okay. And on the whole, they were women who were told by their doctors and people who were supposed to be trained to help them, that they just needed a vacation, sleep, coffee, a hobby, patience, etc. They were sent home and told that they didn’t have a real problem, that they were bad mothers, that they needed to suck it up and go home to their children.
I am not excusing these women for losing control and hurting their children. I am, however, condemning our health system for not serving the mental health needs of the people who sought its help. We cannot blame a health system for failing to treat people who never seek its help. But when a person walks into a medical or mental health professional’s office, an ER, hospital, or urgent care clinic of their own free will, it is because they need something. It may be masked at first by some other request, but no one goes to a doctor because there is nothing wrong with them. We must train all of our healthcare professionals to look for the signs, to treat the whole person, to care about the human being and the community as a whole.
Last week I had a shocking experience with a supposed mental health professional. Having recently moved to a new city, I am looking for a new counselor. I did some research, picked a doctor, and made a call. The clinical psychologist that I called asked me a few questions about my goals for counseling and I told her that I am looking for someone to work with long term, that I find that I do better when I have somebody to talk to. She responded by saying that she doesn’t usually see people for that long – usually not more than 10 sessions. And then she said this, I don’t want people using therapy as a crutch.
Once I explained to her that I’m bipolar, she agreed that she would see me for the long term. But this women, who had never met me and had only spoken to me for maybe two minutes, had decided that anyone who goes to counseling for more than 10 session is using it as a crutch. Nevermind people with undiagnosed mental illnesses, or those with major issues to work through. This is a women who is supposedly trained to care for mentally fragile people, who is supposed to know the signs and symptoms, make diagnoses, and then treat them.
Now, I have been in and out of counseling for a long time. I know that I need long term counseling. I know, that for me, talk therapy helps me work out my relationship challenges, make good decisions, and see where I am being unreasonable in the world. One counselor telling me that therapy is a crutch is not going to deter me from finding a counselor who will help me.
But what about the next person? The one who calls after months or years of agonizing over it, who finally follows the advice of friends or family or their general practitioner and calls this woman. The one who already thinks that counseling can’t help them or that it’s a waste of time. This particular counselor with her attitude about counseling as a crutch might turn this person off and shut down their search for help.
This is what’s wrong with our system. And I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir at this point. Most people I know, know that our system is flawed. And in the face of last week’s tragedy, we really must do whatever we have to to change the system. We must improve our mental health care (and our gun laws).
To show your support of reforming our mental health care, donate to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) today: Donate to NAMI or go here and take the NAMI pledge to be stigma free and then post the following button to Facebook. I did.