By Mary Giliberti, J.D.
NAMI is here to raise awareness about mental illness. We talk about different conditions, how to advocate, why stigma is a problem—but there’s another aspect of awareness that is critically important for us to talk about: services and treatment, as well as timing.
We are learning from research that treatment’s timing is important. Just like physical health conditions, the earlier you get mental health treatment, the better. NAMI understands that it is really hard to take that first step in recognizing an illness and addressing it, but we also know that time is of the essence. Research on schizophrenia, for example, has found stark differences in outcomes depending on how quickly a person began treatment after their first episode of psychosis.
In addition to entering treatment early, it’s also important to make informed choices about the type of treatment. There are several types of therapies, medications and other treatments for mental illness. And for each mental health condition, there are certain treatments that have been well-researched. That information is not as widespread as it should be, and many don’t know what their best routes to recovery are. NAMI is here to help you get information.
Take, for example, the five mental health conditions we highlighted this week for Mental Illness Awareness Week: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Dual Diagnosis, Depression, and Schizophrenia. Each of these conditions have treatment options or a combination of options that have the most hope for recovery. But, often, individuals are not aware of their choices because of their provider’s training or comfort (or lack thereof). There is just no guarantee that medical or mental health professionals will guide a person to the treatment they need.
For example, it’s really hard to know how a therapist has been trained and whether they know the psychotherapy that has been well-researched and proven most effective for your condition. This has been a major problem in treating depression, OCD and BPD. There are well-researched psychotherapies that are known to be more effective for these conditions, but people may not know them and therapists are not required to provide that information.
Compared to the training and qualifications of the people who work on our brains, the government requires clearer consumer information on the food we eat and the mortgages we purchase—so make sure to ask mental health professionals their experience and training (in many states, you can also check a professional’s license status to be sure it in good standing).
Greater transparency is needed in what kinds of treatment a practitioner can provide, but in the meantime, ask your provider, your state mental health authority or your insurer about what they know regarding the exact skills clinicians have acquired. Because we can’t rely on the system to get us where we need to be, we need to become our own teachers and our own advocates. We need to ask the right questions to find out whether we are truly getting the help we are seeking.
So, if you live with a mental health condition or love someone who does, you will want to read widely and educate yourself about your treatment options. While any step towards recovery is positive, you want to make sure you know what the research says about the effectiveness of various treatments, as well as any side effects or downsides. You can do this by exploring NAMI's Learn More pages or exploring the information available from the National Institute on Mental Health. The NAMI HelpLine has a list of many other colleague organizations, like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.
Each year, we hold awareness events like Mental Illness Awareness Week, and each year we engage our community. But what awareness really comes down to is getting people to the help they need. So, if you take anything away from this week, let it be this: Mental health conditions are legitimate medical conditions that need early intervention and evidence-based care. Just like cancer, just like diabetes.
If you or a loved one is experiencing mental illness, the best thing you can do is get treatment now. Not tomorrow, not next week, but now. As we close out this important awareness week, it’s time to turn awareness into action.
Mary Giliberti is CEO of NAMI.
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