As the task force appointed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy begins to address concerns relevant to the Newtown tragedy, it must include individuals who self-identify as living with what is commonly called mental illness in its discussions. Members of Advocacy Unlimited, a group run by people labeled with mental illness, and others have vital insights about ways to improve mental health services.
So far, conversations about improving mental health services in response to the Newtown shooting have largely boiled down to a notion that we can improve them by increasing access to treatment and expanding the frequency and scope of early mental health screening. This type of analysis ignores two monumental questions: 1) What is the current state of treatment and early mental health screening? and 2) What have been the outcomes of treatment and early mental health screening?
Mental health services in this country consist mainly of voluntary and involuntary inpatient stays, diagnosing, prescribing daily psychiatric drug regimens, day programs, entitlements, electroconvulsive therapy and forced treatment. These therapies are driven by the idea that emotional distress can be reduced to an abnormality in the brain. This medical model approach of seeing symptoms as evidence of disease or pathology has perpetuated a reliance on medication and symptom management as adequate responses to mental illness.
The outcomes of this approach have resulted in a 25-year reduction in life span for people receiving public mental health services, according a study led by Dr. Joe Parks for the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. It has also significantly increased the number of people on Social Security Disability Insurance, the suicide rate, the incarceration rate and the homelessness rate, according to the National Association For Rights Protection And Advocacy and others who have studied results of mental health treatments. The most detrimental ramification of the current approaches to mental health services and treatment is that they tend to deprive hope.
Connecticut's Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has been promoting a shift from treatment of symptoms to recovery and wellness for almost a decade. Now is the time to intensify and continue taking action toward this aim.
We know outcomes improve if those seeking help from mental health facilities are aided by peers who have experienced firsthand comparable struggles and know the path to recovery. Such peer-to-peer relationships can provide critical mutual and empathetic support.
Individuals in the peer role are ideally suited to facilitate the process of fellow consumers employing wellness tools such as yoga, meditation/mindfulness, movement and intentional exploration of the impacts of nutrition on states of mind.
Everyone working in the system needs to be educated to promote the belief that individuals labeled mentally ill will recover. They need to promote and encourage the creation of life goals and movement toward them. This creates a framework through which to direct one's treatment — rather than simply devoting time and effort toward analyzing, mitigating and correcting symptoms or problems.
We must reconsider relying on psychiatric-drugs as the first line of defense (particularly when treating children). Peer support — which offers self-disclosure as a tool that provides hope and suggested wellness tactics for individuals who welcome such information — must be available to every person entering any part of the mental health system.
Our communities cannot afford to wait another day to start building different mental health supports. If we hope to improve outcomes for those who access mental health services, we cannot simply increase access to current treatment. In order to offer better treatment, we must build different services that people voluntarily seek out (this means no forced treatment) and services that actually support growth and encourage striving toward creating an enjoyable life for oneself.
Deron Drumm is deputy executive director of Advocacy Unlimited Inc., based in Wethersfield. Greg Benson is a human rights advocate at Advocacy Unlimited.