Despite the increase in openness about mental illness and changing perceptions, the landscape has not changed enough, said Angela Kimball, director of state policy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“We still battle old, unrealistic perceptions,” Kimball said. “Though attitudes are changing for the better, we still battle an insidious and tenacious belief that people who live with mental illness are not worthy of dignity, respect or inclusion.”
Kimball is in Billings as a keynote speaker, addressing about 300 people gathered for the Montana State Conference on Mental Illness. It is the first time in seven years the conference has been held in Billings. The theme of the conference is “Recovery and Reform.”
The expectations for mental health need to change, she said. “It’s time.”
For decades, even centuries, Kimball said society has allowed the health care system to discriminate against the mentally ill.
“If you have a heart attack, they send an ambulance,” she said. “If you have a psychiatric crisis, a cop comes with a pair of handcuffs and a Taser. I wish I wasn’t saying this but it’s true.”
It is time, she said, for the nation’s entire health care system, including the private sector, to step up. She would give the health care system an “F” grade in at least five areas, including:
• Failing to provide continuous treatment that could reduce criminalization. Many who receive treatment in hospitals are often released to no home, no support system and no follow-up care.
• Failing to develop adequate facilities to meet discharge placement needs.
• Failing to adequately cover treatment for mental illness like it does for other illness.
• Failing to integrate care.
• Failing to develop an adequate health care work force that is skilled in treating mental illness.
“The horrific treatment of people who live with mental illness deserves our outrage and our advocacy,” Kimball said. “And our advocacy should be particularly directed at the health system that has failed our people.”
The failures of the existing health care system have kept people who live with mental illness from getting the right care at the right time and in the right place and have left people with mental illness in jails, in hospitals, out of jobs and on the streets, Kimball said.
“The failures represent the persistent devaluing and exclusion of people who live with mental illness,” Kimball said. “Quite simply, people with mental illness deserve the opportunity to realize their dreams.”
Although Kimball works daily on mental health policy and advocacy, it was only 12 years ago that Kimball said she battled her own fears and misunderstanding with mental illness. Her son, who lives with bipolar disorder, had struggled for years in school and at home. It took every ounce of energy she had to try to manage him, Kimball said.
“But I didn’t want to believe that something was wrong with my son’s mind,” she said. “My family didn’t have mental problems. ... It was easier to believe I had failed as a parent. So, I took parenting classes, read books, went to counselors and sometimes I just cried. It was only after my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder that I understood how my own denial had stood in the way of the treatment that was to change our lives and give us hope.”
Contact Cindy Uken at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1287.