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Flu of the mind

Amid the fanfare of Gov. Mitt Romney being declared the presidential nominee of his party, the bills passing through the House and Senate and the White House Correspondents Association dinner, a report was issued by the Department of Health and Human Service’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It received almost zero coverage.

The report presents a picture of mental health in the U.S. as of 2010. Although it has been a year and half since many of the statistics were gathered, it is a wake-up call to all of us.

According to the information gathered, 4.8 percent, or 11 million Americans, had a serious mental illness in 2009. Of those who had a serious mental illness, one-fourth had a concurrent substance-abuse illness. That was only adults! Children had a higher rate of mental illness, with about one out of eight having had a mental disorder in the last year.

The problem of suicide has only been in our conscience awareness more recently. We now have hotlines and postings on bridges, but they began being more prominent in the last 30 years. The numbers are staggering. In 2007, more than 34,000 people killed themselves. Approximately 11,000 people are killed each in accidents involving drunk driving. Between suicide and drunk driving, mental illness is directly responsible for 35,000 deaths a year. That does not include statistics of those dying from murder or other forms of violence.

The good news is that one in eight adults received some kind of mental-health intervention in the last year, and half the children needing intervention received it. The bad news is that the others did not, and we do not give mental health problems the attention that they deserve.

For every one of those suicides, there are family members who are directly impacted by those actions. For every drunk-driving death, there are children, wives, husbands and others who experience the pain of that loss.

We know that there has also been a prescription increase for stimulant medication for children and an enormous amount of prescriptions for anti-depressant medication for adults. Drug companies are doing well, and alternative techniques and outcomes that require intense interventions don’t do as well.

The first lady, Michele Obama, wants us to eat healthy. She is concerned about or weight and what we eat. She is right to focus on that. But, what about the way we live our lives? What about what we could do to minimize the stress and the interactions that make us mentally unbalanced?

I am not naïve enough to believe that if we change our interactions we can move the mental health needle enough to cut down on our suicide rate. It would take a whole lot more than that. We are learning about brain wiring, about inflammation and its effects on brain chemistry. We are learning that the nature/nurture controversy is very complex with many inputs from society, genes, gene expression and other interactions.

We know that Alzheimer’s disease causes about 79,000 deaths a year, diabetes about 68,000 deaths and influenza and pneumonia about 53,000. That makes suicide and drunk driving right up there. If you add murder, which I also consider the result of mental illness, you have a huge public health problem.

Other than the meetings of various professional societies and some concerned family groups and the suicide hotlines, there is little public awareness. Putting more emphasis on mental health in schools is considered “too soft” for public education. Even the press surrounding the movie “Bully” has fallen into a black hole.

Every one of us needs to take this report seriously, everyone one of us needs to pay attention the mental health of ourselves and our families and yes, our co-workers. It is just as important as diabetes. It is just as important as putting Purell on our hands so we don’t spread the flu. The flu of the mind can be as dangerous.