Mental health first aid

THE ISSUE

Pennsylvania is ranked ninth nationally in overall mental health, according to a recent Mental Health America report, up from 15th in 2011. The new ranking uses data from 2014 and is based on measures including access to care and the prevalence of mental illness.

If we were writing about sports, we’d say being in the top 10 in any category is something worthy of applause. If we were writing about music, landing a song on Billboard’s top 10 would be considered a career-defining achievement.

But this is about mental health.

Pennsylvania should be proud of its mental health care improvements. But, as Alice Yoder, Lancaster General Health director of community health, told LNP, “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Lancaster County is certainly on the right track.

— Lancaster General plans to build a 76,000-square-foot, 126-bed psychiatric facility near Clipper Magazine Stadium.

— T.W. Ponessa & Associates Counseling Services Inc. recently added a new treatment option for children with severe mental health issues. The program serves children ages 5 to 12, with meals and transportation provided in most cases.

— St. Joseph Children’s Health, of Catholic Health Initiatives, plans to offer children’s mental health services in county schools and alongside its dental office in East Lampeter Township.

Lancaster is, indeed, “lucky to have a robust and comprehensive network,” in the words of Larry George, director of the county’s behavioral health agency.

But, despite this, many people seeking treatment must wait weeks to months for a mental health evaluation. (This is, in part, because of a shortage of psychiatrists in the area.) Not only is this unacceptable; it’s dangerous.

For a person struggling with a mental illness — someone perhaps so anxious they can’t work, someone in a constant battle with his own mind, or, worse, contemplating suicide — this wait may feel like an eternity.

Many of us try to understand what these disorders entail; we try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. But, more often than not, we fail. This stigma is our fatal flaw.

If the stigma surrounding mental health isn’t eliminated, there’s no way we can completely be satisfied with our progress. The same goes for addiction.

This is why movements like Let’s Talk, Lancaster — a regional partner of the Change Direction campaign, which works to increase mental health awareness, and improve communication between primary care and mental health care physicians — are so crucial.

The campaign urges everyone to know the “five signs” of mental illness: personality change, agitation, withdrawal, poor self-care and hopelessness. Currently, 154 million people have “pledged” to memorize these signs. We recommend visiting the Change Direction website to make your own pledge; share your decision with friends and family, post it to social media using the hashtag #ChangeMentalHealth, and join the fight against the stigma associated with mental health.

Only together can we fully support those with mental illness and addiction. Perhaps then we can be satisfied with our progress.