August 26, 2004

Gov officials take on mental health issues, reduce stigma

Among the many factors that affect widely varying suicide rates of U.S. states, a major one is adequate access to mental health services. However, the stigma around utilizing available services is a major problem, which also contributes to rising suicide rates. "Most people with mental disorders fear a negative or patronizing response, even from health-care providers" says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, author of a recent Boston Globe editorial on suicide rates in U.S. states. "The more severe their distress, the greater the dread of reaching out."

President Bush, as well as several prominant Republicans in government, have publicly advocated the importance of mental health care for all. As he introduced the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, Bush said, "Stigma leads to isolation and discourages people from seeking treatment they need. Political leaders, health care professionals, and all Americans must understand and send this message: Mental disability is not a scandal; it is an illness." Previously, he alledgedly believed that mental illness could be solved through hard work and prayer (this is based on uncited quotations).

This change of heart from our national leader is welcome and needed, as many local and national surveys still report that a majority of United States citizens consider mental illness the result of immorality or sin, rather than a biological disorder. It just goes to show that anyone can reconsider old dogmas, and public advocacy by people with personal experience is a key factor in changing minds and hearts.

Other government officials have been staunch advocates for mental health care services. Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico has authored lots of recent mental health legislation, and Bush created the Mental Health Commission at his request.

The US Air Force has also dramatically decreased suicide rates within their forces, by initiating programs to raise suicide awareness and make treatment available. Top officials were primary advocates, which reduced the natural stigma around seeking help from mental health services.

In his editorial, Dr. Michael Craig Miller praises the efforts of these public figures, and urges all politicians and concerned citizens to do the same. "They could save thousands of lives by following the lead of Bush, Domenici, and the Air Force and by supporting the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention. As leaders in their home communities, they can help their constituents to understand that mental illness is a medical problem, not a moral one."

See the Boston Globe editorial by Michael Craig Miller, "A Suicide Map of the U.S." (Aug 22, 2004).

See a fact sheet about suicide statistics in the U.S. (pdf file) - incidence among populations, factors that affect suicide rates, etc. From

For resources, information, and advice about suicide, and what to do if you or someone you love is considering suicide, see Preventing Suicide on the homepage.


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