Dr. Louis Josephson: Media spotlight on mental health provides opportunity

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It's hard to turn on the radio or visit your favorite online news source these days without coming across a feature story or in-depth series about the state of mental health treatment here in Vermont and nationwide.

More often than not, the media pays a good deal of attention to system inadequacies, regulatory and/or clinical missteps, perceived waste, and poorly coordinated care. Fair enough.

At the same time we're seeing a lot more coverage of the steadily rising need for quality psychiatric and addiction services as increasing numbers of citizens from all walks of life struggle with serious mental illness and substance abuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just issued a report indicating that suicide rates are up 33 percent since 1999, and that more than 47,000 Americans killed themselves in 2017.

It's reasonable to wonder whether or not the depth and breadth of the "need" has been there all along. Perhaps it has been, and we're simply becoming more willing to talk openly about it?

At least we're coming to see, albeit slowly, that those who suffer from mental illness and addiction are actually real people — men and women, girls and boys, who are our friends, family members, colleagues, and community members who happen to have illnesses, largely treatable, that affect their brains.

It is my hope that as we continue to move away from longstanding and irrational views of people with psychiatric illnesses, we will be better equipped to embrace more rational and effective systems to provide them with the care and support they need and deserve.

And even though much of the attention currently being paid to mental health reflects the care system's collective failings, I believe the current burst of media coverage gives each of us an opportunity to help shape the narrative and make sure it doesn't get lost in the next news cycle.

So how do we do that? I think we start by expanding the discussions we are having with each other and continuing to talk openly and honestly about the impact mental illness and addiction is having on our healthcare system, our communities, and the people we know and care about personally.

These are the conversations that work collectively, over time, to help end stigma. Regardless of your role — be it citizen, business owner, legislator, parent, professional — it's up to each of us to speak out, share our ideas and experiences, and work toward positive change.

And let's not forget that the news is not all bad. Lots of great work goes on each day — work that's clearly helping people with psychiatric and addiction challenges live healthy, productive lives.

If we agree that the care system for people with mental illness and addiction can and should be better — and I think we all do — then we will need to work together, be willing to outline the problems we face, and make sure not to let our differences stand in the way of making the changes that need to happen.

My organization, the Brattleboro Retreat, has been a resource for Vermonters for more than 180 years. History has shown us that in a complex and changing world, attention spans can be short. The light that's shining today on mental illness and addiction is an opportunity. But it can easily fade if we let it. Let's not let it.

Dr. Louis Josephson is the President and CEO of the Brattleboro Retreat. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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