We need to talk about mental health

A photo of Keith Lamont Scott at a Levine Museum of the New South exhibit earlier this year.
A photo of Keith Lamont Scott at a Levine Museum of the New South exhibit earlier this year.

As we reflect on lessons learned one year after Keith Lamont Scott’s death and the subsequent community uprising, it’s time to start asking how we can provide more help to treat mental illness – which may be an underlying factor in crime, violence and misunderstanding.

Research has shown that up to one half of people killed by law enforcement officers suffered from a disability, typically those with a mental illness or, in the case of Keith Lamont Scott, a traumatic brain injury. Yet stories in the public narrative often ignore the disability component or blame the victim.

Instead of ignoring and blaming, let’s face up to some facts: More than 300,000 adults suffer from mental illness in the Charlotte region. Nationally, approximately 60 percent of adults with a mental illness received no mental health treatment in the previous year, often because they can’t find care or don’t seek care because of the ugly stigma still attached to mental illness. And the most important fact to expose the stigma as a lie: mental illness is a disease and can be successfully treated.

In Charlotte, there are some encouraging signs. Both Carolinas HealthCare System and Novant Health offer effective acute mental health care and now are collaborating to improve access to low-income and under-served populations. HopeWay, a nonprofit psychiatric treatment center for adults, is helping fill the gap between acute hospitalization and outpatient services with both residential and day programs. Our houses of worship are beginning to encourage their congregations to talk frankly about mental illness. Presbyterian Psychological Services’ nonprofit, interdisciplinary center offers therapy and education for individuals, couples and families.

However, those with lower incomes face a gaping lack of affordable, accessible mental health services. In its March report on how to change the trajectory of our community’s poor, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force highlighted mental health as a key factor in family stability. Research reinforces that living with the chronic stress and anxiety of financial instability can create a particular psychological burden on low-income parents and their children.

African-Americans and other marginalized populations such as immigrants, Latinos and members of the LGBTQ community face particular challenges. Symptoms for diagnoses such as depression and bipolar disorders are often misread. Feelings of impotent rage, depression and hopelessness are made to fit into false narratives, like the “angry black man or woman,” that devalue an entire group and make it easy to dismiss their suffering.

Many feel they cannot afford to exhibit these symptoms of depression and anxiety to their spouses, family, friends and co-workers. For them, showing any signs of weakness is tantamount to being unworthy, forcing them to persevere to the point of exhaustion. Only recently have more members of marginalized communities taken the risk to engage in psychotherapy.

High medical deductibles and disparities in access to insurance remain as major hurdles for those facing mental health diagnoses. For low-income citizens of any background, Medicaid allows for free but in many cases, lower quality services.

It’s time to end the stigma attached to mental illness for all of our citizens, no matter their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. More so, one year after our community’s turmoil, a clear-eyed look at economic and racial disparities in Charlotte must include deeper empathy in understanding cultural differences, more training to help all first responders better recognize mental illness, and more mental health resources for all, including our most vulnerable neighbors.

Cleghorn is pastor of Caldwell Presbyterian Church. Garmon-Brown is co-chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force. Risher is a psychologist at Presbyterian Psychological Services.

Want to know more?

Attend a free forum, “Mental Health: A Community in Crisis,” on Sept. 24 from 5-7 p.m., at Caldwell Presbyterian Church, 1609 E. 5th St., featuring personal stories, a physicians panel, and mental health providers describing their services.