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In My Words: The numbers on mental health

Following the suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams, Assistant Professor Jason Husser examines survey data on American attitudes toward mental health and calls for more efforts to be made to remove the stigma of depression.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the (Greenville, N.C.) Daily Reflector, the Greenville (S.C.) News, the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald and the Gaston (N.C.) Gazette via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Viewpoints are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Assistant Professor Jason Husser

The numbers on mental health
By Jason Husser - jhusser@elon.edu

 
The news that Robin Williams committed suicide was so surreal that you might as well have told me Mickey Mouse killed himself. In an ever-connected world of countless notable figures, positive icons like Williams are still rare. He was one of the happy people — those who give our lives a fixed point of stability and reassurance, telling us it’s always going to be OK.
 
Other than Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, my 1990s childhood knew few more recognizable than Robin Williams. No Millennial kid had a cultural figure more lovable. Through Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Aladdin and many more, he reminded a youth bound in the cuffs of a small town that magic was out there for the taking.
 
Then, he intentionally asphyxiated himself because... depression. A beautiful life snuffed out, assuming the often-repeated trope of beloved yet discontented millionaire artist.
 
Williams’ death is as fertile ground as any to plant the seed that our nation needs to discuss mental health more openly. Sometimes it takes a tragedy for people to recognize a problem is real. Our nation’s most loveable comedian just gave us a point of reflection. Let’s use it.
 
Mental health issues are common. Even among those employed or temporarily not at work, more than half of respondents in the 2012 General Social Survey said their mental health was not good on at least one day in the last month. A 2013 Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found almost a quarter of adults were in a household in which someone had been hospitalized, received counseling or taken prescription medicine for treatment of a mental health or substance abuse problem.
 
Despite such ubiquity, only one in five in a 2013 Pew poll thought our country was making progress with mental illness. Scholars have known for decades that the stigma associated with mental health problems exacerbate the conditions of those suffering. The Kaiser poll found 76 percent of respondents recognized that people with mental illness face “some” or “a lot” of prejudice and discrimination. Nonetheless, fewer than half of Americans in that poll were comfortable being neighbors of someone with a mental illness. And, 21 percent of respondents still were opposed to the federal government requiring insurance companies to provide mental health coverage.
 
It’s not just stigma from anonymous “society.” Stigma comes from family members as well. A qualitative study of adolescents in the Midwest by Tally Moses of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found 46 percent of participants experience “stigmatization by family members, which often took the form of unwarranted assumptions, distrust, avoidance, pity and gossip.” Mental health isn’t like a lack of ambition, an excuse or laziness. Depression is not a choice. It’s a problem that needs social embrace.
 
Even as a rich dude with vast resources for treating his problems, Robin Williams died. Imagine the plight of common folks with depression. Another question in the Kaiser poll found 12 percent had difficulty getting mental health care because of cost. If a celebrity didn’t find what he needed, it’s hard to think the masses would.
 
We’re fortunate to live in a world in which you’re unlikely to fault a friend for having brain cancer. You’d embrace them and offer your emotional support and acceptance. Nor should we fault someone like Robin Williams with depression. He was not responsible for all of it. We have a collective responsibility toward people like him by removing the stigma from his suffering.
 
Ryan White was a child who acquired HIV through a blood transfusion. He showed even the most obstinate that those with HIV/AIDS were like you and me. By the time of his death in 1990, 88 percent of Americans had heard of him. Williams has the potential to improve public perceptions by being viewed as the Ryan White of mental health, the joyful victim you’d think least susceptible to a lurking menace.
 
If we can learn anything from the death of America’s comedian, it’s this: Love your friends and family in their hard times. Don’t neglect the sincerity of their struggles. The stigma of mental illness has got to go. It’s up to us to send it on its way.
 
Robin Williams’ inspirational character John Keating from “Dead Poets Society” said, “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” Words are too late for Robin. They aren’t too late for you to remember that your words and ideas about mental health can change the lives of some very special people. Embrace your friends and family in their hard times. They need you. And the world needs them.

Jason Husser is an assistant professor of political science and assistant director of the Elon University Poll.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
8/18/2014 8:35 AM