With the start of a new year, let us redouble our efforts to address the lessons of 2012. The pain is still fresh, and we at Colorado West Regional Mental Health Center join the rest of the nation in mourning the tragic loss of life at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. This is yet another tragedy in a country that has recently experienced too many.
There have been many speculations regarding exactly what needs to happen within our society, from calls for gun control and reducing violence in games and media, to increasing armed security in public places.
As an organization immersed in the mission of improving individual and community life, we must draw attention to the call to attend to mental health. A stronger commitment to vital mental health services is long overdue.
Several of the recent mass shootings have common elements; the shooter is reported to have been isolated, disconnected from neighbors and community. Several of them experienced mental health concerns.
How do we create healthy communities where people, even those with a mental illness, are connected and have supports?
To achieve any kind of success, stigma must be addressed. We know that in this country, one in five people experience mental illness. Statistically, people with mental illnesses are no more violent than people without.
Unfortunately these kind of tragic events unfairly and harmfully tar people with mental illnesses as inherently dangerous. In fact, these Americans not only share the nation's horror at these events, but also bear the additional weight of false stereotypes and discrimination needlessly reinforced by these perceptions.
Stigma not only contributes to incorrect assumptions about people with a mental illness, it also contributes to the real problem of community-based mental health services being grossly underfunded - not just traditional therapy and psychiatric services, but the full continuum of mobile crisis services, assertive community treatment, peer supports and long-term housing.
Can we face stigma and create natural supports in the community for people with a mental illness? Can mental illness be recognized as an illness like other conditions, such as cancer or diabetes?
Another step in the right direction is development of an integrated care system so that mental health services are available in a primary care setting, thus decreasing stigma and offering early intervention and prevention.
We challenge every individual to face and eradicate the self-defeating stigma of mental illness and to advocate for a universal inclusion of behavioral health services in the Patient Centered Medical Home and the Accountable Care Organizations currently under development. Existing regulatory and accreditation standards for these services are inadequate to ensure meaningful inclusion of behavioral health services in those emerging settings. Is this also a result of stigma?
People with mental illness can be and are a part of a healthy community. This tragedy and the many tragedies before it call for all of us to work as one to create lasting solutions and support those with mental illness.
Often, when speaking to the public, I ask how many people know a family member, friend or neighbor who lives with a mental illness. Typically every hand in the room is raised.
Please do your part and change perception. Please address stigma and befriend a person who has a mental illness. Together we can create healthy communities.
Sharon Raggio is the president and CEO of Colorado West Regional Mental Health Center. Based in Grand Junction, Colorado West also serves Garfield County and other Western Slope communities.