National Mental Health Awareness Week was observed last week in Juneau as local mental health agencies held community open houses at the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health, Green House, the Glory Hole and a candle light vigil at Polaris House. Health professionals say many Americans (as great as one in five) are burdened with conditions that affect their mental health, yet relative few acknowledge or seek help. There is a perceived societal stigma that is firmly attached to mental health. Therefore, bringing greater public acceptance to this pressing health issue is of great local and national concern. It is important that it be both frequently and frankly discussed to permanently erase this unwarranted stigma.
Reaction to a burdened person can vary greatly. From one of indifference - subtle glances, whispers, insensitive remarks - to one of unnecessary bridling. It is of some comfort to know these reactions are due to a lack of knowledge and general misunderstanding about mental health. The burdened also run risk of being processed by a justice system that is unable to cope with the enormity of the problem. The system is simply overburdened and working with few to no alternatives. In fact, it is totally overwhelmed with waves of misdemeanants. Frequently it is the poor, the homeless and myriad of other unfortunates who make up the court's daily procession of cases. There will be those who will say in rather righteous tones that punitive laws are required. However, this whey-thin self-righteousness will sour as one actually witnesses the entire system in action. Numerous defendants are likely burdened with long-term depression driven by severe and cumulative layers of stress and manic-depressive, obsessive-compulsive, avoidance or traumatic stress conditions not uniformly known about or adequately dealt with by the system. When an individual happens also to present with a genetically caused maladapted behavior related to alcohol or other addictive substances they run the added risk of self-medicating their multiple condition. These are all serious issues that actually thrive in a stressed-out society, but they can also be helped. Some Web sites for this include http://www.jamhi.org/services.html and http://www.ghscorp.org/.
The justice system seems encrusted with a patina of cyclic repetition (see http://www.smartrecovery.org/index.html), although it must feel it does the best it can given all the constraints on available resources and the sheer scope of continuous and growing case backlogs. However, that being noted, the problem still exists. To add burden through imposition of punishment to an already existing mental burden by laws that were created in ignorance of the conditions that generated them is wrong. It is simply not right for the system to be aware of mental disorders and then attempt to compromise them with imperfect justice. The present process of justice is too unwieldy and standardized. There really needs to be enlightened and progressive rethinking of the entire process with a repeal of insensitive laws and the establishment of alternative courts (see http://www.ncsl.org/programs/health/drugcourts.htm).
Our society's future objectives and goals must involve the entire system of justice. We must insist it become familiar with all the latest information on mental health as identified by contemporary medicine and professionals in the field. A thoroughly well-informed and proactive society will possess the necessary wisdom, compassion and knowledge based acuity necessary to help individuals with serious mental health conditions.
Alan R. Munro is a past board member of JAMI, and a practicing artist and 32 year resident ofJuneau.