What if this increase had occurred in cardiovascular disease or cancer (both on the decline, in fact, thanks to the intense attention they receive)? I think there would have been a public outcry, followed by demands by Congress that the National Institutes of Health and the CDC address this catastrophic rise immediately. And billions of dollars would then be earmarked to prevent these 2 diseases.
How sad that society has “forgotten” that mental illness has deadly consequences, often leading to suicide (42,773 deaths in 2014 alone2—the second most common cause among people age 15 to 253)! Hundreds of thousands of people attempt suicide every year, and those who do not lose their life often end up injured or maimed. Millions who suffer depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, or a substance use disorder are at high risk of suicide, and many never receive the timely intervention that might save their life.
Our national blind spot
It is poignant that the CDC report was released in spring: The rate of suicide is highest in April and May, when the light-dark cycle is reversed. This springtime peak runs contrary to the common belief that the rate of suicide is highest during winter months. The Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association convenes in May, such that, ironically, thousands of psychiatrists are away from their office exactly when their patients might need them most
Lack of attention to the high risk of suicide among all ages and both sexes is emblematic of society’s inexplicable neglect of the needs of the mentally ill. That neglect is fueled, and exacerbated, by the destructive stigma attached to brain disorders that display psychiatric symptoms. As a neuropsychiatrist, I label this neglect societal anosognosia—the same as the lack of insight seen in patients with acute schizophrenia, who are unaware of how impaired they are and insist that they are not sick. (Anosognosia also occurs in stroke patients who deny that their limb is paralyzed and insist that all is well.)
Loss of insight can have serious consequences for patients who lose the ability to monitor and evaluate their physical and mental health. Just as patients with anosognosia think they do not need help, a society that fails to attend to the mental illness of its citizens endangers their overall health and welfare.
From neglect of mental illness many hazards arise
Tens of millions of Americans suffer from mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health-sponsored Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study.4 The last thing these people can afford is societal anosognosia, which deprives them of necessary and timely access to psychiatric care.
Societal anosognosia is associated with numerous hazards for persons with mental illness, including:
- Lack of compassion, which is readily available for people with a medical ailment (broken bones, cardiovascular disease, cancer).
- Lack of adequate, affordable health insurance and financial support, compared with what is available for non-psychiatric disorders.
- Shortage of publicly funded programs and mental health practitioners to provide prevention and intervention for those who consider ending their life during an episode of depression, psychosis, stress, or a panic attack.
- Allowing the stigma to continue unabated. Why are there strict laws about hate crimes, but not about stigma? Why does society continue to portray depression and anxiety as a personal weakness or failure, while patients with Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis who have motor weakness are not stigmatized for their physical deficits?
- Transforming the seriously mentally ill into felons by arresting and jailing them because of erratic behavior—instead of hospitalizing them for the medical care they need. The transinstitutionalization of the mentally ill—from state hospitals to prisons—is one of the most shameful consequences of societal anosognosia, burdening our patients with the dual stigma of being a criminal and mentally ill.
- Turning a blind eye to abuses by insurance companies. More appalling is the perpetuation of restricted health coverage despite the passage of parity laws! Why are sensory and motor disorders of brain lesions covered fully, while the thought, emotional, and behavior disorders of the brain covered only partially?
- Consent laws that restrict psychiatrists from medicating acutely psychotic or depressed patients unless they consent—but no laws that restrict a cardiologist from immediately treating an unconscious heart attack patient who cannot consent, or an obtunded stroke patient who cannot communicate? The duration of untreated psychosis or depression has been shown repeatedly to have deleterious effects on brain tissue and functional outcomes, yet treatment of an acutely ill psychiatric patient is often delayed until a court order is obtained. When was the last time a court order was needed to treat an acute myocardial infarction?
- Failure to recognize that premature mortality (by approximately 25 years) is a devastating consequence of mental illness, whether from suicide or cardiometabolic risk factors due to smoking, substance use (often used to self-medicate because proper treatment is lacking), poor diet, and sedentary living.
- Failure to provide basic primary care to people with severe mental illness, and the much lower use of life-saving diagnostic and treatment procedures offered to these patients, compared with non-psychiatric patients.
- Inadequate funding for research on psychiatric disorders, compared with other medical disorders—even though direct and indirect costs of mental illness to society (hundreds of billions of dollars a year) far exceed costs of most medical disorders.
- Severe shortage of rehabilitation programs for the mentally ill, compared with many other medical disorders. Why does paralysis of the mind receive far less support than paralysis of the legs or arms?