There Is No Vaccine for Mental Illness

Families of those with serious mental illness face little promise of normalcy.

Posted Dec 02, 2020

Michal Matlon/Unsplash
Source: Michal Matlon/Unsplash

While the world waits for the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, holding tight to the hope that springs from immunity and a return to normalcy in 2021, it’s important to remember that other crises will outlast the pandemic. For those affected, there is a different path forward which existed before COVID and will continue after.

As a mental health attorney, I receive calls every day from distraught family members of individuals with conditions like schizophrenia and mood disorders. They’ve watched helplessly as their loved ones grapple with psychosis, mania, and depression—symptoms that prevent them from staying employed, maintaining relationships, and following treatment protocols. They endure disappearances, during which they’re left to wonder where their loved ones might be—whether they’re homeless, incarcerated, or even alive. They’ve turned their lives inside out trying to protect the people they love, facing extraordinary obstacles every step of the way.

There is no return to normalcy for these families. Living with the mental illness of a loved one is their normal.

While our society has come a long way in destigmatizing certain mental health conditions—the kind that are often successfully treated with the right mix of therapy, medication, and self-care—very little has been done to address the epidemic of serious mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 11.4 million people in the U.S. experienced serious mental illness in 2018, a figure that amounts to 1 in 25 adults. This translates to estimates that at least 8.4 million people in this country provide care to an adult with a mental or emotional health issue. Such caregivers spend an average of 32 hours per week providing unpaid assistance and support.

These figures should not be surprising considering the state of our mental health system. As a society, we’ve deemed it acceptable for those struggling with serious mental health conditions to cycle in and out of hospitals, with a small number of community programs and long-term care facilities providing consistent, therapeutic homes. There has been little will to fund such needed resources, even during “good times.”

Times are not good at the moment. The pandemic has spurred a fiscal crisis our country hasn’t seen since the Great Depression. It is difficult to imagine that new funding streams will be established for those with serious mental illness in the foreseeable future.

Yet, this remains the right thing to do, with many concerned citizens pressing our leaders to rethink what’s acceptable, advocating for greater levels of assistance and support to those most vulnerable, even after the pandemic is behind us.

It is imperative that these efforts include those with serious mental illness and their families. They have struggled far too long with only a dim, flickering light at the end of the tunnel.

As we enter the dark COVID winter, there is a clear challenge before us. We must all make the sacrifices needed to control the coronavirus and survive to see the promised Spring. But after, we must immediately turn our attention to those who will continue to need our help.

As we await COVID immunity, we must remember there is no vaccine for mental illness, though there is treatment and recovery.

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