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ERIN MURPHY: Stigma of mental illness remains too strong

Sioux City Journal - 6/16/2018

The stigma must be removed. People's lives literally depend upon it.

We must be able to talk about suicide and mental health. Sadly, two stories I read this week - one written by me, another by a colleague - showed while we may have made some progress removing the stigma from suicide and mental health issues, there remains significant room for improvement.

This week in the western Des Moines suburb of Clive, residents at a public forum expressed concerns with a proposed $31 million, 100-bed psychiatric hospital. Fear and ignorance filled the comments people made at the meeting, much to the dismay of mental health care advocates, reported Des Moines Register Opinion Editor Kathie Obradovich.

One woman said people with mental illness may arrive by bus and wander aimlessly like the homeless, another woman suggested mental health patients could become trapped in human trafficking schemes, and a man suggested the hospital should be built as an annex to the county jail.

Hearing that makes it a little easier to understand why people with mental health issues are afraid to come forward, too often before it's too late.

"Iowa has come a long way, just in the past year, in recognizing the need for more accessible mental health care across the state. But the level of hostility that adult Clive residents expressed toward people with mental illness at a community meeting on Tuesday is a disturbing reminder of how far we need to go," Obradovich wrote.

This week I reported on a recent national study that showed suicide rates have risen more than 30 percent over the past two decades, including 36 percent in Iowa. I talked to some experts in the fields of suicide prevention and mental health; they all talked about needing to eliminate the stigma that keeps people from talking openly and honestly about the issues.

And when people are suffering from a mental illness or depression don't talk, too often they end up taking their own life.

One more thing that each of the experts I interviewed said was that anyone concerned about a person who may be suffering from depression or having suicidal thoughts should absolutely reach out to that person.

This one struck a chord with me. Like many people in the wake of the recent high-profile suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, I felt heartbroken for those who have taken their own lives and their loved ones. I wrote on social media encouraging anyone having suicidal thoughts to not be ashamed or afraid to reach out to someone for help.

What had not occurred to me was for many people suffering from depression, it's not that simple. It's not easy to decide to share that suffering with someone else, even the people closest to them.

That's why those experts I interviewed implored people to offer a helping hand to anyone they feel may need it. Don't wait for them to ask for help and don't be afraid that you may upset or offend them. Their reaction, those experts said, is likely to be exactly the opposite: they likely will be grateful that someone cared enough to reach out.

It's a powerful message, and one that also should help us cut through that stigma, help us talk about suicide, depression, mental illness and anything else that is creating a barrier for people who need help.

Let's take down those barriers, and let's do it rapidly. Let's talk about this. Let's get the facts. Let's do this right.

Let's save some lives.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net.

 
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