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Stamping out the stigma of mental illness

October is Stamp Out Stigma month being sponsored by the Association of Behavioral Health and Wellness to reduce the public stigma of mental illness and disorders caused by substance abuse. This SOS effort is one piece of the puzzle for getting a grip on a mental health epidemic sweeping the country.

The campaign leaders hope to change “the dialogue on mental health and addiction from a whisper to a conversation.”

Even though great advances have been made in our understanding of mental illness, we still have a paradigm hangover from early days when going to an institution for mental care was going to the “crazy house.” Folks struggling with mental health problems were considered abnormal rather than ill.

It isn’t macho to be considered abnormal or weak so mental illness has continued to be stigmatic, even though mental illness diagnoses are more prevalent than heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, migraines, osteoporosis and asthma. Even so, people are afraid to discuss the mental challenges that plague them.

One in four adults will experience a mental illness in a given year.

Because suicides rates have increased by more than 30 percent in more than half of the states between 1999 and 2016, the linkage with mental illness is logical to some degree. Suicides in North Dakota have jumped 57 percent, with North Dakota teen suicides three times the national average.

Nadine Kaslow, former president of the American Psychological Association, claims that suicide rates are actually higher than the reported figures which makes sense because suicide has a social stigma not to be discussed. At any rate, it is safe to say that most, if not all, suicides are the result of stress if not mental illness.

Sponsors of the Stamp Out Stigma month suggest that mental health illness be brought out of the dark corners and discussed openly. But with whom?

Suffering from too much space, North Dakota can’t even staff the countryside with general practitioners let alone specialists, such as psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. That leaves the illness at the doors of pastors, priests, family, friends, etc. etc.

I would guess that there are thousands of North Dakotans suffering mental illness and anxiety in silence because there is no one with whom they can share their stigma. Isolation is not the answer.

Mental health has captured some headlines because of the mass killings that have occurred in the country. This exposure may get a few more resources, not because of the public concern for the well-being of persons in need of help but because the interest groups want to use mental health as a cover for the gun lobby.

Mental health should not be used as a political football to be kicked downfield as a solution for political problems. Over a dozen states have passed “red flag” laws making it possible to take guns away from people considered a danger to themselves and others. It is a good law in that it will save some lives but it has limitations.

So far all we know is that the success and failure of “red flag” laws depend on the resources and enthusiasm at the local level of law enforcement. The procedure is time-consuming and will likely be used only when the danger is so obvious it cannot be avoided.

So we might as well be honest. Mental health in the gun debate is nothing but a ruse to divert public attention away from more effective gun legislation. Laws getting rid of assault weapons and enforcing universal background checks would be much more effective.

Mental illness should be removed from the gun debate and approached as a medical problem rather than some political solution.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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