A new report released last week shows that the suicide rate in Virginia is the highest it has been in the last 13 years. Virginians are now three times more likely to die from suicide than from homicide. Just last Monday, Virginian police confirmed that a plane crash was among three recent unusual deaths that are being investigated as a suicide. Unfortunately, however, the state’s continually high rate of one of the most preventable causes of death is not an isolated trend.
For over a decade, the nation’s suicide rate has been climbing — rising 23 percent — as millions of Americans struggle with untreated mental health issues. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were over 700,000 emergency room visits for self-inflicted injuries in 2010. Moreover, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 16.5 percent of adults are clinically depressed at some point in their life.
Suicide and depression aren’t the only mental health cases on the rise in America. A recent National Institutes of Health study shows that substance abuse is also increasing, as an estimated 22.5 million Americans — nearly 10 percent of the population — report they have used illicit drugs in the past month. A recent CDC report indicates that drug overdoses are skyrocketing – causing more deaths than car crashes.
But a staggering number of people with mental illness don’t receive any treatment. Among the Americans who suffer from severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, only 50 percent receive any treatment. Two-thirds of Americans with severe depression go without medication. In 2011, more than 21 million Americans needed some level of treatment for addiction, but only 11 percent actually received any.
Mental illness has serious consequences for both individuals and society. In addition to the health tolls, untreated mental illness can lead to disability, unemployment, and homelessness — all of which cost the U.S. over $100 billion each year. To ensure that people have more access to mental health care, the Affordable Care Act has pushed some much-needed reforms in mental health by adding strength to the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which required health plans to apply equal benefits for both physical health and mental health. The ACA dramatically increased mental health coverage, ensuring that 62 million Americans have access to mental health treatment benefits. But this is only the first step in combating a growing health concern in America.
There is still much work to be done by both the American public and lawmakers. Another important step involves eliminating the pervasive stigma that remains attached to mental health care. A survey from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System found that only 25 percent of adults with a mental illness believe people are caring and sympathetic toward persons with mental illnesses. Those who need help rarely feel comfortable reaching out for fear of the stigma attached to mental illness, or they run into barriers accessing care.
The Obama administration, mental health groups, and policymakers have offered up solutions that will both weaken the stigma and provide more effective resources to those in need. But many solutions — such as training more mental health professionals, giving professionals cultural and linguistic training, investing in transportation methods as well as family, in-home, school and work mental health education, and fostering more community based support and accountability programs — are being ignored or forgotten because they lack broad public support. These resolutions could go a long way in bolstering the nation’s mental health support system, and ultimately preventing tragedies in states like Virginia.
Our guest blogger is Andrea-Gale Okoro, an health policy intern with the Center for American Progress.