There has been much talk in recent weeks at the national and state levels about mental illness, a topic that is often misrepresented, misunderstood and generally not the focus of much media attention unless something tragic happens.
It’s the job of mental health advocates like Bonnie Loughran, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness of Dane County, to push past these stereotypes and speak out on the importance of early diagnosis and sustained treatment so people can live healthy, fruitful lives, she says.
“That’s our goal. It sounds like an easy goal, but it’s huge because we have to break down stigma, we have to make sure people have insurance and we have to make sure there are places available for them to get treatment,” she says.
It’s a high-profile position for a woman from Appleton, a place she describes as conservative and where, growing up, she never heard about mental illness.
That awareness quickly changed, however, when she married a man with depression. It was a difficult time for both of them, she says. He was sad, she was sad and she didn’t realize what was going on. The married ended in divorce, as did her second marriage to an alcoholic.
But it was her response to the second marriage that changed the course of her life.
She says a support group for friends and families of alcoholics saved her life. She realized she was approachable, a personality characteristic that helped her decide to change her career path.
A single mom with two children, she returned to UW-Madison and earned her graduate degree in counseling psychology. Shortly after graduation, she began what would be a 16-year stint with Catholic Charities. In March, she will celebrate her six-year anniversary with NAMI.
Loughran sat down with The Capital Times recently to talk about the $28.9 million Gov. Scott Walker plans to invest in his 2013-15 budget for mental health services, the creation of a mental health task force by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and the connection she says is incorrectly being made between gun violence and the mentally ill.
The Capital Times: NAMI advocates for treatment and awareness for which mental illnesses?
Bonnie Loughran: The mental illnesses NAMI deals with are what we call the severe and persistent. That includes schizophrenia, bipolar, major depression, generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and sometimes obsessive-compulsive disorder fits in this group.
What these folks need is treatment. They need early diagnosis. And they need effective and affordable treatment.
CT: What are the most prevalent mental health stigmas that still exist?
BL: That those who are mentally ill are violent is a huge one. People also think they can’t be trusted, they can’t recover and that they’ll always be a burden. People also think those with a mental illness can’t think straight, that they’re not smart, creative or can’t hold down a job or get a college degree. All of that is false.
CT: There’s been talk concerning an influx of spending on the state and national levels for mental health services and programs. The discussion is often accompanied with talk about the alleged violent tendencies of the mentally ill and, these days, their connection to gun violence.
Scott Bryant-Comstock, president of the Children’s Mental Health Network, wrote on the group’s website: “There’s a new stigma in town: guns + mental illness = violence. And it should break the hearts of advocates nationwide.” Do you agree with his concern?
BL: One hundred percent. It makes me sad to even think about it. People with mental illness get a raw deal. They always have.
Statistically speaking, people with mental illness are only responsible for 4 percent of violence crimes, according to numerous studies. They are generally not violent.
If they are, it tends to be when they lose their medication or stop taking their medication, when they turn to drugs or alcohol, or if they feel threatened.
I’m not saying people with mental illness never get violent. But there’s not a strong correlation at all between mental illness and violence.
CT: Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, called for putting mental health records into the national background check database while rejecting any suggestions of expanded background checks or gun restrictions. What was your reaction to this suggestion?
BL: It’s hugely stigmatizing. I absolutely take issue with the NRA and how they are dealing with efforts by President Barack Obama to curb gun violence. It’s not that those of us (mental health advocates) want to take people’s guns away for hunting. What we want is gun control. We want assault guns banned totally. It’s just common sense.
CT: Is this attention on mental health, particularly Gov. Walker spending $28.9 million on mental health services in the upcoming budget and the creation of a mental health task force, just a knee-jerk reaction to the recent shootings?
BL: In my opinion, Walker and others don’t have to deal with the (causes of) violence if they just say, “We’ll take care of the people with mental illness. Everyone else can keep their guns because those other people don’t kill.”
I think Walker is trying (but) I think it’s about gun control more than him being sensitive to mental health issues. That’s a harsh statement but what’s happening is worrisome to me.
CT: Why is it worrisome to you?
BL: Walker is turning away billions in federal dollars that could basically assure people would (receive) the mental health services he wants to create with the $28.9 million.
When we talk about access to mental health services, it’s about two things: People have to be able to afford or have insurance. And there has to be something to go to. The fact that people do recover also is lost in the debate, provided they have the support and treatments they need. People do recover.
CT: How would NAMI like to see the $28.9 million spent?
BL: We have always been advocates for treating people before they get to prison. Some people with mental illness get arrested before they find treatment. Then they start making their way through the system. Many go to court, where part of a condition of their release is having a mental health assessment. Some can’t afford an assessment, though. They may not have insurance so they never get treated and end up back in jail.
Once they get a diagnosis, things start to make sense. A diagnosis and treatment have to start early.
CT: That can’t happen for the uninsured.
BL: Correct. Instead, people struggle and struggle and struggle until there is a crisis. Then it’s harder to figure out what they need to do to be OK.
CT: You have a personal story you want to share.
BL: I do. My own son has bipolar. He was diagnosed in the early 2000s. He was one of those people who got arrested a few times because of his mania. He’d get out of control. Most of it was disorderly conduct. It was hard for him to get a diagnosis. Everyone wanted to diagnosis him with substance abuse.
A doctor finally listened and didn’t assume he was a substance abuser. It turned out he also had anxiety. The first time he took an anti-anxiety pill … his whole life changed. He was able to settle down. Now, he has two children who live with him. He’s a single dad.
But because of a $21 cost of living increase on his social security disability check, his income suddenly was too high to qualify for Medicaid. He lost his insurance.
Now he has to pay for his own insurance. That takes away from his food or rent money. They (Walker and others) don’t even talk about these people.
That’s my story. That’s my son’s story. But there must be zillions of other stories out there like this … of people losing their insurance. You’re never secure. It gets back to Walker’s decision to turn down federal money to expand Medicaid. That decision is huge.
CT: NAMI was concerned about cuts to health care services under Walker’s last budget, correct?
BL: Yes. I was out there at the protests two years ago with a NAMI sign saying “Keep BadgerCare, Keep Medicaid.” I’m no longer proud to say I’m from Wisconsin the way it (state government) is cutting down and not taking care of its people.