Since the Newtown, Conn. school shooting in December, there has been an increased focus on identifying and treating mental illness. Advocates say it’s also very important to overcome the stigma associated with mental illness. Executive Director of the New Jersey Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Sylvia Axelrod told NJ Today Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor that she’s pleased President Barack Obama and others are discussing mental health treatment, but she hopes the conversations lead to lasting changes.
Axelrod said mental health services in the United States need to be improved. “The system is broken in many places,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that it takes a tragedy though to focus the attention on mental health services.”
Mental health issues are very common in the U.S. and around the world, according to Axelrod. She said one out of four people are affected by mental illness in any given year and one out of five children are affected. “So when mental health services is not provided as is needed, there’s going to be major problems that are created,” she said.
Obama’s plan aims to improve mental health services and focus on early intervention in schools. Axelrod agrees with that approach. “We need to have more school counselors, social workers and people within the school system that children can reach out to when they have mental health problems. So this is a very, very important aspect of the president’s plan,” she said. “We also need to educate children themselves about mental health, how to take care of your own mental health, how to identify problems they may have and encourage them to seek help when they need it.”
Axelrod believes the stigma associated with mental illness has been a major barrier preventing people from seeking services. “What we’re going to have is people out in the community that need services that don’t come for the services because of shame, because they feel they’re going to be discriminated against,” she said. “So the aspect of having this out and talked about publicly is very important.”
Tragedies often bring the topic of mental illness to the forefront, but Axelrod said it shouldn’t fade away with time. “We have to make sure that it isn’t only when there’s a tragedy that we pay attention to mental health services because it doesn’t work that way. We can’t just say it’s a tragedy, we’re going to set this up, forget about it,” she said. “The fact that this is a couple of weeks after, a lot of stories die down. I’m really pleased that we’re still talking about it. But I hope that this we will continue.”
The New Jersey Safe Task Force Gov. Chris Christie set up will investigate mental illness as well as addiction, gun control, the level of violence in society and school safety.
“It’s important to look at both mental health and addiction services together. And also looking at what is happening in the schools in terms of educating student sand teachers. So I think we’re on the right track in what we’re doing in New Jersey and I think the president is on the right track in what we’re doing nationally,” Axelrod said. “And hopefully it’ll be maintained, it won’t just be one of the issues that are forgotten until the next tragedy.”
More resources and funding are needed for mental health services, according to Axelrod, especially since there was a 12 percent cut throughout the country in those services between 2009 and 2012. “So we have to make up for these cuts to begin with and move forward in terms of filling in the gaps. We still have a lot of people who fall between the cracks,” she said. “And those are the people we have to be concerned about in addition to as I said the one in four people who do have a mental illness who seek services and have difficulty obtaining it but they need it.”
Axelrod said there are services available, though perhaps not enough. “More services, more funding is definitely needed but it has to be consistent. That’s my concern,” she said. “We hope that it starts now and there’s a will now but that we just have to make sure that it’s ongoing and that the public is there to support it.”