A Quiet Crisis: How Mental Illness Is Stealing Our Future
I’m sharing my personal battle with depression in hopes that this story might save a life
If you met me I guarantee you would not walk away with the impression that I struggle daily with depression and have attempted suicide. I have been successful in life as far as businesses and I have wonderful children. I have known love, and I have traveled and seen more than most people will in a lifetime.
The reality is, I struggle every day just to get out of bed, bathe, and eat.
This is a very touchy subject, and I want to be careful not to make this just about me. This is about millions of Americans that are affected by mental illness.
Before we delve into the particulars of my personal story and the mental health crisis in this country, I want readers to know that I am not going to tell you to “Just get over it” or “Everything will be fine.” I know the reality is more difficult than that. I feel lucky that I was given a second chance, so that I can tell my story and you can hear these words loud and clear. YOU MATTER. Even if no one you know makes you feel that way.
The Heavy Burden Of Mental Illness
Depression alone affects approximately 1.5 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year. That’s about 3.3 million American adults. The burden of mental illness on health and productivity in the United States and throughout the world has long been underestimated. The World Bank Group, who conducts research in conjunction with the WHO on the burden of disease worldwide, estimates depression cost the U.S. $800 billion in 2010 due to lost economic output.
The data gathered from 187 countries as a result of the Global Burden of Disease study in 2010 indicates that mental and substance abuse disorders make up 7.4% of the total global disease burden. This makes mental illness the fifth leading cause of disability in the world. Depressive disorders were the largest category of mental illness, followed by anxiety. People aged 10–29 made up the population most often affected by mental health disability.
Even if you’re healthy, mental illness still affects you. In order to address this crisis, we need to be more forward-thinking when it comes to mental health. And that begins with acknowledging the problem at hand not with numbers and cold hard statistics but with compassion.
What Mental Illness Feels Like For Me
The hardest part of this is explaining to your loved ones why you’re depressed. A person who is not depressed has a very hard time understanding what goes on inside the head of a person who is dealing with depression. Instead of giving you clinical details of what it feels like, I feel my own story may give you a better perspective.
Every day when I wake up it is different. One day I can wake up and my day is very good, almost like a euphoric high. I will laugh and make jokes, I will get everything done that needs tending to, and my overall outlook on most things is very positive.
Then the dark settles in. These are the mornings when it feels like total blackness has encompassed my world. I struggle to get out of bed, it is a major issue to brush my teeth, take a shower, feed myself, and yet I have to go through the day as though I am normal. As I go about my day it gets worse with each interaction. It takes every bit of my energy just to keep from yelling “I AM NOT OK, JUST LEAVE ME ALONE.”
Imagine one morning you wake up and for no reason at all, you feel that you are worthless, depleted, fatigued, scared, embarrassed and not needed in this world. On top of all this you must go to work, take care of your kids, and all the while trying your best to suppress the overwhelming feeling of just wanting to crawl back in bed and cry for hours on end. When people close to you start to notice, you make excuses. I am just tired or it is just a bad day, but all the while you’re screaming inside like an out of control tornado.
During these episodes, I have no control over my depression. I want to be normal. I want to be happy. I want to just be able to enjoy something. Anything. But during this time, nothing brings any relief.
I am one of the lucky ones that has the ability to get help. For those that can not it leads to homelessness, mass incarceration, and in some cases, suicide. But because we are not addressing this issue properly, either out of a sense of shame or carelessness, it is leveraging an immense cost on our country.
Why are we as a society so afraid to have these discussions? We can and must do better. Our future depends on it.
Mental Health And Drug Addiction
In many cases, mental illness can be a precursor for substance abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that almost two-thirds of adults and adolescents entering treatment for substance abuse had concurrent mental health issues, including high rates of depression and anxiety.
While drug addiction itself is considered a mental health illness, the frequency with which it occurs alongside other mental health issues is indicative of a more complicated relationship between the two risk factors. Research indicates not only that drug abuse may amplify other mental health concerns, but that those concerns may be what led to drug abuse in the first place in an effort to self-medicate and alleviate symptoms.
Mental illness and substance abuse disorder also have several shared risk factors including but not limited to:
In the continued war on drugs, those with mental illness become causalities of a justice system that relies on punishment instead of rehabilitation and these problems continue to compound and spiral out of control.
Mass Incarceration And Mental Illness
One aspect of the mental healthcare crisis is our penal system, which has become its own form of punishment. While a 1976, Supreme Court ruling indicates that all prisoners are entitled to adequate medical care, the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States continue to face limited access to mental healthcare and prescription medications. And with median incomes hovering around $19,000/year, most inmates don’t have the resources to fund their own healthcare.
Getting locked up, however, is “terrific, terrific” business for the private industry that supplies jails and prisons. Because jails spend about $8 billion a year on healthcare costs to keep prisoners alive, many are outsourcing healthcare to for-profit companies. It’s become a booming industry that experts estimate is worth more than $3 billion a year.
Hillary Clinton had discussed eliminating for-profit prisons, companies the Obama administration said were more expensive and less safe than government-run facilities. These same companies like Geo and CoreCivic were large contributors to Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign. After Trump’s election, prison for profit stocks rose 100%.
The incentive here seems obvious. Why cure people when the corporations and the healthcare industry can profit from them? We are so caught up in the greed of capitalism that we have lost sight of the actual problem. The very real people that need help.
Mental Health And Homelessness
Over one-fifth of the homeless population currently residing in the United States suffers from what we would term as severe or debilitating mental illness. HUD estimates there are over 610,000 confirmed homeless in America, but many experts agree the number may be as high as 3.5 million.
This forgotten population continues to suffer, many of whom remain untreated. They move in an endless cycle from shelter, to jail cell, to street. In 2014 the federal government spent over 5 billion dollars on programs to aid the homeless. And the cost of not caring about the homeless continues to grow.
While it’s not immediately apparent whether mental illness causes homelessness or vice versa, it’s clear that not having a stable environment can only worsen the situation for those who are struggling. And that the sooner we can get the mentally ill off the streets and into housing and treatment, the better the prognosis.
The Silent Killer Is Suicide
In order for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth to thrive, they need a safe and supportive environment both at home and school. Unfortunately, LGBTQ youth are more likely than their heterosexual peers to experience mental illness and negative health consequences as a result of trauma and intolerance.
These types of incidents seem to closely correlate with rises in mental illness and suicide rates in America. Nationally, the CDC cites suicide as one of the top three leading causes of death for adolescents aged 15–19. In states like Utah however, where religious rhetoric condemning “gay” lifestyles is more prevalent, the youth suicide rate has tripled since 2007 and is now the leading cause of death for children ages 10–17.
Suicide also ties into the gun problem we are having in America. More than 33,000 people are fatally shot in the U.S. each year. Nearly two-thirds of which are suicides.
Another at risk population in American are military veterans. While 2.1 million veterans receive mental health treatment from the Department of Veteran Affairs, the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research indicates that’s probably only half of the 20% of Iraq or Afghanistan vets that have suffered episodes of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. While there is support through the VA to address mental health issues, nearly 22% of vets chose to seek care outside that system due to long waits and inadequate care.
Another mental health concern among veterans is elevated rates of substance abuse, which mental health professionals report seems to be closely correlated with exposure to combat. A study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse estimates 25% of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan require treatment for drug addiction and substance abuse disorders.
Both widespread mental health concerns and substance abuse contribute to an alarming increase in suicide risk among veterans. Veterans are 40–60% more likely than that of the general US population to commit suicide.
The risk of suicide seems to be greatest for male veterans, who in the immediate aftermath of discharge from duty, seem to experience heightened mental health issues and increased isolation. By failing to make mental health a priority, we are continuing to put our veterans in harm’s way.
Just Get Over It
To those with loved ones battling depression, saying “Just get over it” or “What could be so wrong” isn’t helping. We do not want to feel this way, and so when you say these things, it makes us feel broken and unlovable.
And this is where the biggest problem arises. When we do feel that we can confide in someone, being told to “get over it” or “cheer up” can make us feel ashamed for even giving voice to these feelings. We dive deeper into the blackness and we do what comforts us, retreating into a safe space where we become isolated. We drift alone, embarrassed and humiliated.
This isolation is what I want to highlight the most. This is when those who are mentally ill are at our most vulnerable and things can spin quickly out of control.
It gets hard for me to write about this, but if I am going to try to help by telling this story then I have to be honest with you. About four years ago, I attempted suicide.
I want to be very clear. This was not and should never be the solution, but we have to address the issue head-on if we want to get better. I had gone through my second divorce, had a bogus lawsuit filed against me and for the very first time in my life, I was unable to work in an industry that I loved. I was blackballed for a period of approximately two years.
I did not qualify for unemployment and had no high school diploma. I was a man who had worked for 28 years and been self-sufficient and successful. Now the electric, phone, cable and my car were all either shut off or repossessed. When my children would visit we would walk to the grocery store and I would lie and say I had already eaten so they would be fed properly.
I kept all of this a secret. To the outside world I was still working and things were good. I was able to borrow money from friends and some family but this went on for about four to five months. It culminated one weekend when I had begged, and borrowed and was out of options. Defending myself against a billion dollar corporation with an 8th grade education had drained me of everything I had left.
I remember writing a will so that everything that I had not pawned or sold would be split between my kids evenly. I had put my dog with food and water in her crate so she would not see me when this happened. At that moment I genuinely believed my kids and the people that cared for me would be better off without me.
On Monday morning at approximately 10 a.m. I ingested 40 sleeping pills, an entire box of Benadryl, and approximately 40 Zoloft and laid down on my bed, waiting to fall asleep. The last thing I remember is regretting my decision, but then blackness.
The next thing I remember was it was late afternoon the following day. My cell phone was still on and I had approximately 40 missed calls and multiple texts. I attempted to type but it was gibberish and I went back into a blackout, awakening to my phone ringing and a loud banging at my door. Somehow I managed to get to the door, opened it, and fell into the arms of one of the paramedics.
They took my vitals and asked what I had done. I do not know how I was able to respond coherently but I repeated multiple times, this was not a suicide. I just could not fall asleep and had taken too many sleeping pills. I was admitted into the hospital for treatment of high blood pressure and loss of kidney function.
I do not believe in a higher power, but the fact is I should not be alive and I can not explain why I was spared. I know it may feel like the world is ending, and I also have been there. I was one of the lucky ones that was given a second chance, please take my story and know this — it will always get better. I am living proof of this.
I won my lawsuit and I got back to work. I was able to provide for my kids again. The hardest part was looking at my oldest child and having to apologize for making a terrible decision. I still get depressed and I struggle every day, but even if suicidal thoughts returned, I wouldn’t act on them again.
Some that attempt suicide are successful and do not get that second chance and this is why I am writing my story. Before you even consider suicide, please ask for help.
You matter. You may not feel that way now, but I promise you, you are more important to this world than you know. There is nothing wrong with you. We are human. We have good, bad and ugly feelings. This the very fabric of being human. Know that help is available and there is no shame in that. I have sought out help and I am not perfect but I am here. If you give into that darkness, you will never know what you will be.
Mental Health Is A Non-Partisan Issue
From a political point of perspective. this is where we as a society need to step up and help collectively. Mental illness affects millions of Americans and yet funding is being slashed. Mental health disorders cross party lines. Half of all Americans will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. They affect our friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers regardless of where we stand politically.
When we do not support people, we pay heavily whether in healthcare, workforce, quality of life, or actual lives lost. Ensuring access to a variety of services and support systems that enable Americans to stay in their communities and to contribute to society should be a nonpartisan issue.
More than anything else, where you live can determine your access to care. While federal policies and efforts can help steer the nation, state and local policies can make the ultimate difference in whether or not treatment is available or affordable.
Using party affiliation data from Gallup, MHA (Mental Health Association) combined its Access to Care Rankings with state party affiliation. The top ten states were almost evenly split among Democratic-leaning, Republican-leaning, and competitive states.
All states, regardless of political make-up, should support access to care. Now more than ever, voters need to tell officials at all levels of government to take action to address the mental health crisis in our communities.
What Can You Do?
Medicaid is the single largest source of funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment in the United States and the Affordable Care Act expansion of the program to low-income adults was the first time there was some semblance of a national structure for treating mental health and substance abuse issues.
Many people with severe substance abuse and mental-health issues also have low or no incomes or are homeless, and before the ACA were often ineligible for public insurance through Medicaid. So for that group especially — but also for millions of people with inadequate insurance or whose pre-ACA Medicaid didn’t cover mental health and substance abuse services — the only reliable way to receive care was when problems became severe enough to merit admission into an emergency room or institution.
Under the Affordable Care Act, low-income people at risk for mental-health emergencies, and those fighting substance abuse issues finally had a way to pay for preventative and rehabilitative services. And we need to fight to keep that funding so those who are mentally ill can continue to seek treatment.
If you know someone who is depressed or has said they think of suicide, do not take this lightly. We also must talk more about this difficult topic. Parents talk to your kids and look for the signs: Isolation, change in appearance, mood swings, suspicious comments on social media.
The mental health crisis is devastating this country, and the more people start talking about it, the more help we can provide to those in need. I hope if you read this it sparks a conversation with someone who is going through something. Please do not assume everything is alright if you feel someone you care about needs help, call the hotline. And keep fighting for us. We’re still here and we still matter.