Robin Williams And The State of Mental Health Care In America
On August 11th the news of Robin Williams’s apparent suicide stunned the world. Here was a man who possessed boundless energy, who could transform before your very eyes into a prim nanny, an irate scotsman, a lovable genie. He dazzled audiences across the world, never missed a single beat, and seemed to embody laughter itself.
Since then tributes have poured forth to honor a man who many of his colleagues admired as the one of the greatest entertainers of his generation. If you watched the Emmys this past Monday you may have seen another comedic giant, Billy Crystal, deliver a touching memorial to his good friend. “He made us laugh. Big time.”
Perhaps you or someone you know posted on social media thoughts about Williams. One of my friends wrote an account of her own experience with depression and finished by writing –
Indeed, the event has thrust this subject back into the national conversation, and looking at the state of mental health care in America leads to some stark realizations.
In May, Liz Szabo of USA TODAY published the first of a series of reports called The Cost of Not Caring, which describes the toll that mental illness takes on individuals, families, and the country as a whole. It includes some striking facts: between 1995 and 2012, the number of people diagnosed with a severe mental illness rose from 7.2 million to 9.5 million. Yet during that same time, the number of psychiatric hospital beds available fell from 160,000 to 108,000. One shocking story from Szabo’s reporting involves a woman in her 40s suffering from depression who was unable to be admitted for care in the Vermont health system…until she swallowed an entire bottle of pills. “Now they’ll have to treat me,” the woman told her husband.
Every year 600,000 people with mental illness, rather than receiving treatment, wind up either in jails, prisons, homeless shelters, the streets, or the morgue due to suicide. The lack of adequate care ends up costing our country nearly $450 billion a year.
Far from being some problem that seems far off and abstract, the lack of mental health services is an issue that hits close to home. For example the city where Civinomics is based, Santa Cruz, California, has one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness in the county. And of those with a disabling condition (i.e. the vast majority) 55% reported suffering from mental illness. Among the chronically homeless the number is much higher – 81%.
Looking state-wide, the California prison system has been embroiled in controversy since at least April of this year after a federal judge ruled that the treatment of inmates with mental illness violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Just this past week corrections officials announced that they will now be shifting mentally ill inmates out of standard isolation units and into specialized housing where they will receive more treatment for their condition. The broader message contained in Szabo’s reporting, however, is that with adequate care many of these individuals would likely have never gone to prison, or wouldn’t have ended up in the streets, or worse.
Among the mixture of emotions and memories generated from this event, the loss of Robin Williams is a reminder of the battle that so many Americans fight with mental illness and the urgent need to improve the care they receive. If you have ideas for programs or legislation that can help, add them on Civinomics. You’ll see on top of the homepage feed that we’ve made it easier to add a new proposal for local, state or federal government. We hope you’ll add your thoughts as we’ll be turning our attention to homelessness and mental health in the coming months.
Rest in peace, Robin.