On a recent August morning I was awakened to the terrible news of Robin Williams’ demise. The sadness of this loss and his death by suicide hung over me like a shadow for days. Of course I didn’t know him personally, nor was I an especially avid fan. But over the years my life had been touched by this comedian and actor who made me both laugh and cry, and more importantly, helped me reflect on and better understand the complexity of our humanity. His portrayal of a passionate and caring English teacher in “Dead Poets Society” is a performance I will never forget. Now Williams’ own death has reminded me once again of the fragility of life and the heavy weight of mental illness that some people carry.
Mental illness need not define a person as it often has in the past, but we have a long way to go to truly help those in need. Over the centuries, we as a society have ostracized, ridiculed, imprisoned, institutionalized, over-drugged, shamed, blamed, stigmatized and forgotten those who struggle with diseases of the mind. Quite unlike the history of physical ailments -- which has had a distinctly different and more promising trajectory. Today we like to think we have a more enlightened view of mental illness, but countless people still fear the stigma of “coming out” with their mental health “issues” to peers and colleagues. How many among us try to hide our own struggles or those of our family members?
In the last half century society has moved away from overcrowded and often abusive mental institutions or asylums to a more humane community-based mental health approach. However, neither public funding nor insurance plans have ever provided the necessary support and resources to make such programs very effective. In fact, the lack of adequate community mental health services has given rise to jails and prisons becoming warehouses for the mentally ill in recent years. Even Minnesota faces a shortage of providers and hospital beds for those with serious mental illness as a recent legislative roundtable in west-central Minnesota revealed. And since William’s death, local media outlets such as Minnesota 2020 and MPR have been shining a light on the growing need for more mental health services across the state.
The much beloved Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone labored long and hard to pass the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act which only came to fruition in 2008--six years after his death. A couple of years later, the Affordable Care Act further increased coverage for mental health services. But even for those who have access to good health care, successful treatment is never a guarantee, as Williams’ death so painfully reminds us. Given the great need, surely we can do better to foster the well-being of all in our society with our ever-increasing knowledge of neuroscience, psychology, mental health and preventive care.
This month Humanists of MN has an opportunity to support people with mental illness as well as draw attention to mental health needs in our own state. On Saturday, September 27th, all across the country, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is holding its annual mental health awareness and fundraising Walk-a-thon. The local event sponsored by Minnesota NAMI will feature dozens of organizations and thousands of walkers including a team from Humanists of MN. Please consider joining our team of walkers—or supporting our walkers financially.