June 04, 2013
Bonnie Erbe, To the Contrary Host Bonnie Erbe, To the Contrary Host

President Obama did something incredibly important this week. He shined a spotlight on mental illness. His purpose was not only to raise awareness so more Americans can spot signs of it among family and friends and to increase treatment, but also to spread the word recovery is more attainable than ever.

U.S. society is woefully ignorant of mental illness. The President's intervention will, it is hoped, help close the knowledge gap. The President armed himself with the firepower of Hollywood stars Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close, whom he invited to the conference. They've both played mentally ill characters and in Close's case, has helped a close family member battle bi-polar disorder. The President aims to eradicate the stigma associated with the array of bio-chemical disorders including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, bipolar disorder, depression and so on.

Coming out about mental illness is all the rage, since actress Catherine Zeta-Jones announced her battle with bi-polar disorder in 2011. Full disclosure: I am not bi-polar but I have suffered chronic depression my entire life and my birth mother committed suicide as a result of bi-polar disorder when I was one year old. It is a game-changer, I can assure you.

I refused to take antidepressants for years after my diagnosis, believing wrongly  depression was something I should have been able to conquer myself. I finally agreed, after much coaching from my therapist, to try antidepressants. The mood change was overwhelming. I had no idea what it would feel like NOT to be depressed. I went from feeling like something was always horribly wrong, to waking up with a smile on my face.

I say this to spur others in similar situations to take action. My advice? Find a good doctor and follow his or her suggestions. Expense should no longer be a concern because the White House?s website says the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) makes low or no cost care available to everyone.

Bio-chemical disease is just as real as other types of disease. Would people with hypertension, cancer or diabetes convince themselves they should tough it out and cure themselves without medical intervention? Of course not, yet our collective ignorance leaves many of us believing that mental illness is often feigned.

Just last month an ESPN editorial described an astounding lack of understanding of the facts. It cited an online story about ex-Detroit Lions wide receiver Titus Young.  The 23-year-old athlete was arrested three times in 12 days on charges ranging from DUI to theft. His father, Richard, explained to two Detroit newspapers his son suffered from mental illness. Readers responded:

"He does have a disorder. It's called lack of discipline."

"There is no brain disorder that makes you break the law."

"There is nothing to feel sorry about here."

"Put on your big boy pants and stop blaming things"

These comments exemplify why public education is so necessary. In the case of depression, for example, the brain fails to produce enough of the neurotransmitter serotonin. The lack of serotonin has a tendency to darken people's moods. It has nothing to do with discipline or blame or anything but body chemistry.

Despite having dealt with depression for decades, I do not believe increased understanding of mental illness translates into exculpation. If a defendant in any crime, violent or otherwise, is known to be mentally ill that may help explain irrational thinking, but it does nothing to resolve liability. Just to restate what President Obama said this week, the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent to others or to themselves.

The President was not in office when the federal mental health parity law took effect. That law requires most insurers to cover treatment for mental disorders the same way they do for any other disease or health concern. But his Affordable Care Act will extend coverage to millions of Americans who did not have it, an important change in the law worth applauding.