David Susman, Ph.D.

The Recovery Coach

A 10-Step Plan to Fix Our Mental Health System

Advocacy is the key.

Posted Oct 31, 2018

To say we are in a time of great unease and uncertainty is an understatement. We are stressed, oppressed, bullied, harassed, and victimized, and our mental health is stretched to the limit.

As many as 1 in 4 of us will deal with a mental health challenge at some point in our lives. Record numbers of people with severe mental illness are warehoused in jails and prisons or lie cold and homeless on our streets. The number of suicides increases each year. Some would say our mental health system is broken.

But there is a way, perhaps only one way, to fix this. It is through advocacy. But our advocacy must be focused, coordinated, well-executed, and consistent.

How do we accomplish this? Here’s a 10-step plan of advocacy-based strategies and principles I believe we must continue to embrace and promote to improve our system of mental health services.

Source: focalpoint/CanStockPhoto

1. Greater awareness

When it comes to accurate information about mental health and mental illness, we often don’t know what we don’t know. Misinformation abounds both online and in casual conversations, perpetuating discrimination. This lack of awareness is both troubling and astounding. Therefore, increased efforts to raise awareness about mental health issues and treatment remain a necessary and critical step in the overall plan to improve mental health services.

2. Public education

There is a great need for accurate, science-based information about mental health issues. We should start in our elementary schools by teaching children how to handle difficult emotions, how to have good social skills and healthy relationships, how to step forward when they are bullied or abused and to let them know it’s okay to ask for help. This education should continue in high schools and colleges to help youth and young adults better navigate the many difficult transitions from home to school to career and family. We must make sure everyone knows how to find appropriate resources for mental health care, understand effective treatment options and know how to respond to a mental health crisis.

3. Inclusion

Far too many of us feel marginalized, whether by race, poverty, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability, political beliefs or many other factors which leave us without a seat at the table. We need inclusion and diversity. We need more voices, from all places, all walks of life, all backgrounds, and all perspectives to broaden the conversation and bring about real changes to our mental health system.

4. Collaboration

There is great power in collaboration, conversation, and community. While we have many great individual mental health advocates and organizations devoted to mental health advocacy, we must build more effective networks to increase the power of our collective voices. Perhaps the time has come to create more local, national and international mental health coalitions to bring together all of these powerful voices under one roof to share information, coordinate advocacy initiatives and break down the walls and silos that now separate us.

5. Civility

The viral YouTube video by Logan Paul, who insensitively filmed and joked about a person who had died by suicide, shows just how far we have to go in our approach and understanding of how to talk about mental health issues. We need to remember to show basic civility, including sensitivity, respect, and appropriate language to not offend others. We will not always agree, but we can politely agree to disagree and still continue a civil dialogue to find points of compromise to move productively forward.

6. Compassion

We must not forget that there is still great suffering. Many of those with the most serious forms of mental illness either lack awareness of their issues or lack resources to obtain treatment. Others are engaged in appropriate care but still struggle day after day, battling their own private demons of hopelessness, isolation, and despair. Many others still function as parents, workers, and students, but are troubled by nagging self-doubt, self-criticism, and unhappiness. All who struggle must be included in our efforts to improve the mental health system. As Albert Schweitzer so eloquently said, “The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.”

7. Funding

All of the great innovations in treatment for mental illness won’t make a bit of difference if we can’t get them to the people who need them. This requires money to initiate or expand services. Funding for mental health treatment and research has been flat or declining in many areas for years and this has got to stop now. Although a perhaps overused comparison, would we settle for stagnant or decreasing funding to research and treat cancer, heart disease or other illnesses? Mental health issues deserve equal funding.

8. Action

Greater awareness about these issues is not enough. Advocacy requires action. And it also requires all of us. We can no longer diffuse responsibility and leave it to others to step forward and speak up for better care and services. We must all pick up the phone, send an email or text, or talk face-to-face with policymakers to let them know what is needed, why it’s important, and how they can make a real difference in improving the lives of others by their actions.

9. Persistence

It’s all too easy to become discouraged when year after year we see little progress in obtaining new funding and improved mental health services. But substantial system change can take years or even decades. So we can’t give up. Like the Energizer bunny, we just have to keep going and going and going with our advocacy until we make change happen.

10. Hope

While the current state of affairs in our mental health system is discouraging and leaves much room for improvement, there is still considerable reason for hope. We have a wide range of proven and effective treatments. We have caring and well-trained health care providers. We have wonderful, creative mental health advocates. And we have a steadfast desire to make things better.

The need to fix the mental health system is great. But collectively, we can make a difference. The time to act is now. 

Copyright David Susman 2018

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