Mental health as important as physical

Published May 1, 2007

A blue parking permit with the words "mental health" sits on my dashboard.

It came from Friday night's Directions for Mental Health "Safari Nights" fundraiser at Innisbrook. I served as the emcee, and the permits were issued at the security gate.

A friend, however, noted that the casual observer might assume I have a "mental health" problem.

Yeah, so?

Hopefully, the parking permit would indicate I'm getting treatment. No shame in that. We wouldn't think two seconds about having a parking permit for the Moffitt Cancer Center, the Pepin Heart Hospital or the Byrd Alzheimer's Clinic.

For some reason, however, admitting to a mental health problem remains different.

Directions chief executive officer and president Tom Riggs asked the audience to imagine if our society treated cancer the way it treats mental health. In that scenario, only half of the people with cancer would get any professional treatment, and health insurance coverage would not cover long-term care.

Without long-term care, the person wouldn't be able to work and would fall into poverty while continuing to battle this life-threatening illness.

One out of every eight people with major depression commits suicide. A person with a serious mental illness has a life span 25 years shorter than others.

Coincidentally, Directions began 25 years ago as a result of a merger between two other organizations. In that time, it undoubtedly has increased life spans by helping folks deal with behavioral problems such as depression, trauma and drug addiction.

Last year, Directions served more than 8, 000 people, half of them children. Not only do the treatments work, but the preventive methods help reduce crime, homelessness, domestic abuse and child abuse.

"Mental health treatment is as effective as treating heart disease, " Riggs said.

Still, you don't have to search long to find people who scoff when they hear the word therapy or insist happiness simply is a choice. Everyone empathizes when a person is dealing with the physical pain of a debilitating disease, but somehow mental anguish is in a different category.

Until, of course, a loved one or friend commits suicide. Or a madman goes on a shooting rampage. Then mental health care takes center stage.

Physical illnesses and mental illnesses need to be on the same plane all the time. Start with yourself. If you get an annual physical from your doctor, take time to ask about a mental checkup - even if you think you're fine.

Riggs noted there are depression-screening methods. One such assessment is used in the organization's treatment of expectant mothers and mothers with infants to help prevent postpartum depression.

Beyond making your own mental health a priority, try to be empathetic of others. Listen without judging when called upon by a family member or friend, and encourage them to seek the kind of professional treatment being offered by Directions. You can learn more at www.directionsmh.org.

Directions is an ideal name, because people with mental health problems are just trying to get to a better place.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or 813 226-3406.