Sandy Hook. Charleston, SC. Aurora, CO. Virginia Tech. Sound familiar? They should. These are all places that experienced a mass shooting. In each one of these, the gunman was said to have suffered from a mental illness. Yup! Good ole reliable mental illness defense. Every shooting and every election cycle mental illness is given lots of attention.
The words “mental illness” are thrown around a lot, but mental illness itself is still given little attention. But it should. It should be given a lot of attention and not just as the scapegoat for someone’s criminal activity. It should be given attention from the moment you
Twenty Percent (20%) of Americans live with some form of mental illness. That’s 1 in every 5 people. That means if you stand 5 people side-by-side, one of them may have some type of diagnosable mood or psychiatric disorder, or even some sort of addiction. That’s a lot of people!
I recently attended an event in Long Beach for #MindYourMind. It was a great opportunity to see what resources are in Long Beach for people who live with a mental illness. The turnout was dismal, the booths were almost non-existent. It felt more like a social hour than an information day. But it happened – and it needs to happen more. While I was there, I had a chance to speak to a young man who lived in the area (East Village). I’m going to call him “Bob”. Bob is in his 30s and sometimes employed, but not really. Like me, Bob is a career student. At the time of our convo, Bob was in school for his Master’s degree (Go Bob!!).
He went to the event to see if he could find a counselor or some place that could officially tell him what was wrong with him so he could get decent treatment. He wanted what is called psychological testing. Bob knows he has depression, but thinks something else is going on. I asked him how he knows this. Bob’s been going to a therapist off and on for about 10 years now. The first one told him he had depression, the second one (years later) suggested medication, and the third tried something called CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I asked him how did all that work out and he said: “Well, I’m deeper in my cave than before! I might need those meds after all”. The thought of even that, he said, made him feel worse. Bob is not alone.
“About 20% of the U.S. population reports at least one depressive symptom in a given month, and 12% report two or more in a year.”
Let’s look at some local numbers. The City of Long Beach has a population of 462,257. Twenty percent of that is 92,451. 92,451 people who live in Long Beach have a diagnosable mental illness. Now, with that many people with diagnosable mental illnesses, Long Beach, being a city of innovation and progress, has to have decent access to mental health services, right? I mean, where do you go to get psychological testing when you have no money and public insurance (such as Medi-cal)?
Well, you can’t go to Long Beach Mental Health if you live in Long Beach, Bob tells me as he lights a cigarette. I light one, too. What he told me made no sense. How could a mental health service NOT offer testing? After all, how can they treat you if they can’t tell you what’s wrong with you? They can’t, especially if that treatment may require medication.
Turns out, Bob was right.
Curiosity got to me and I took a trip down to the mental health building on Long Beach Boulevard, right next to the Social Security Administration building. I asked the receptionist about an appointment to see someone who could do testing. She said they don’t do it at that location. They had ONE person who did it and he left. I asked about a referral to another location. Surely she had that information on hand, right? Wrong. She said she had to take my contact information and get back to me on that AFTER she spoke to her supervisor. I asked if it was something she had to get permission to give. She told me no, it wasn’t but, they don’t actually have that information on-hand. Really?!
Let’s go back to the local numbers. Long Beach also has a very high poverty rate. Of its total population, 22.8% (about 101,697 people) live in poverty. If 20% have a mental illness, then over 20,300 people living at or below poverty in Long Beach need some sort of help. Again, that’s a LOT of people.
This was a little off-putting for me since studies have shown that mental illness and income have an “inverse relationship”. What this means is that researchers have found that mental illness is very common among members of the lower-income class. No, just because you are poor doesn’t mean you have some kind of mood or psychiatric disorder. It means that it’s seen more.
Money is a huge barrier to receiving treatment for a mental illness. You either have it or you don’t. Generally, Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California) provides for treatment. However, not everyone qualifies for free or low-cost coverage. Bob did. After he found out he was covered, he was relieved because it meant he could finally take care of himself the way he needed to. Now, to find a doctor. A simple search will pull up hundreds of psychiatrists and psychologists, social workers and counselors. These services cost money. It is true that some non-profits and other groups offer services on a sliding scale, but sometimes anything other than “free” is too much. Sometimes, these services are not for diagnosing, just treatment.
Mental Health is such an important part of our overall lives. I think what providers do not acknowledge is that when someone voluntarily comes to find help, that it’s a huge step! Mental illness is wrapped in a stigma no one wants to wear, much less admit to. So when a person finally works up the nerve to at least go find out what is making them feel or do the things they do, only to find that it’s not possible – yet, then there’s a big chance that person will just…walk away. These are the “One and Done” people. These are the people that say they will give it a shot and if it doesn’t work out, will leave it alone.
Twenty Percent. Long Beach has a problem that needs to be fixed. The problem isn’t mental health. The problem is access to the services to help get you where you need, no matter your income. Service goes beyond treatment. It begins with finding out what needs to be treated. At the every least…make sure that’s available.