OPINION: Let's consign Don Young's remarks about suicide to history, and do more to help Alaskans suffering mental illness.
Recently, much attention has been given to suicide and mental illness following remarks made by Congressman Don Young at Wasilla High School. His commentary placed blame on the family and friends of those who die by suicide. As someone who works in the mental health field, and as someone who has frequently witnessed firsthand the devastation that accompanies suicide, I too was astounded and hurt by his remarks.
As others have pointed out, a positive that we can take from this embarrassing episode is the open dialogue about mental illness and suicide it has created. I cannot help but feel some degree of frustration that it seems that only in the wake of political battles and missteps of those we look to as leaders, do these issues get the level of attention they deserve. These incidents do a good job of making people aware of the struggles of people with mental illness, but how often does measurable action actually occur in a manner that improves the lives of those with mental illness? More often than not, it just becomes a moment for one political candidate or another to shine. In this situation, I think we have come to a moment where it is time to move the spotlight from this man, and focus instead on the community and what can be done.
Stigma surrounding mental illness remains pervasive throughout society, and largely due to this stigma and the ignorance that drives it, we have become a society that is obsessed with the idea of “awareness.” There is an abundance of days designated to promote awareness of all kinds of illnesses or social problems, but in light of these events, I am left wondering exactly what awareness means in relation to mental health.
In 1990, the U.S. Congress designated the first week of October as Mental Illness Awareness Week. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is one organization that has taken the lead on advocating for people with mental illness around the country. While NAMI gives many suggestions on how to activate change in communities, I believe NAMI Walks is one of the most beneficial action pieces of this awareness movement. NAMI Walks is not only an awareness raising event, it is also a fundraiser that supports education, services, advocacy, and research on mental illness. Alaska is one of only five states that have no NAMI Walks fundraiser scheduled.
Also, NAMI provides a report card for each state on its website, and Alaska currently receives a grade of “D.” The breakdown for how we are doing is as follows: Health Promotion and Measurement = D; Financing & Core Treatment/Recovery Services = C; Consumer & Family Empowerment = F; and Community Integration and Social Inclusion = F. It is surprising -- and troubling -- that for a state that has the highest rates in the nation of suicide and other suicide-related mental health issues (e.g., depression, alcohol use, etc.), it looks like we are not doing enough to address it.
I do not believe that a national organization like NAMI is fully capable of understanding completely the cultural and contextual differences of Alaska. Indeed, to think that this report card accurately reflects our unique strengths as well as our difficult areas for improvement would be naive. Nevertheless, I share our current grade believing that it is hard to figure out where to go without a clear understanding of where you are starting. This recent embarrassing incident and our poor NAMI report card can at least serve to give us a jolt to move out of a stage of vague awareness, and into a place where we solidify clear leadership and improve intervention plans.
You can be aware of anything, but unless it impacts action, how much is really gained? I am aware of traffic lights that indicate that I should stop or go, but ultimately it is my choice as to whether or not I push the brakes or give the engine some gas. People stop at red lights because we know the consequences if we do not. We could cause collisions or receive traffic tickets to pay the price for not acting on this awareness.
So when do we put the brakes on mental illness? Just like in traffic collisions, people also die because of mental illness. People die when we do not recognize the importance of mental illness. Between 2000 and 2009, averages of 136 deaths by suicide per year are reported by the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics. In 2009, the Census Bureau reports 64 deaths resulting from car collisions.
It is time to put the brakes on, Alaska. Let’s turn that anger and frustration into action and create some mental health “seatbelts.”