The House is taking mental illness seriously

<strong>The Way I See It</strong> Jason Hawk, editor

The Way I See It Jason Hawk, editor

It never fails: In the few dozen police reports I read every week from agencies in Lorain County, there are always pink slips.

These aren’t old-school vehicle titles or layoff notices.

This is the kind of pink slip used to hospitalize someone for mental health evaluation, usually against their will, because they present a danger to themselves or others.

Law enforcement officers, increasingly trained in intervening in mental health crises, bear a huge burden. They must decipher the fine line between sociopathy — good old garden-variety criminal behavior — and mental illness.

The latter terrifies me. To a great extent (but not entirely), criminal behavior is a chosen path. But in contrast, mental illness is the emergent behavior of complex chemical interactions in the brain.

You don’t choose to have schizophrenia, or Alzheimer’s disease, or clinical depression, or alcoholism, or bipolar disorder, or anxiety, or hypomania, or an eating disorder. And while you may make the choice (please don’t) of taking too many pain pills or experimenting with heroin, you don’t get to choose whether you’ll become addicted.

It’s the lack of choice I find disturbing. My great-grandparents didn’t choose to die of Alzheimer’s complications. My grandmother did not choose to have a breakdown. My mother did not choose to have depression.

See, it’s in my family. Since I was eight, watching GramGram Williams wither in a bed until she couldn’t tell me apart from her television characters, I’ve been convinced I’ll develop Alzheimer’s someday, too. It’s an ever-present demon riding my shoulder.

I’m hardly alone. Americans share an often-unspoken worry because about one in five adults (18 percent) have some kind of mental illness diagnosis or event every year. That’s 42.5 million of us.

So I am glad to see Ohio legislators treating mental illness with the gravity it deserves, rather than simply ignoring the problem or further stigmatizing it.

The past week, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio commended the state House of Representatives for committing an additional $171 million to the behavioral health crisis. The cash is included in the current draft of Ohio’s biennial budget, which has not been formally adopted and could very well change.

The House investment, as presently put forward, would fund nine substance use disorder detoxification centers, six mental health crisis stabilization centers, drug court and mental health court programs, addiction recovery housing, mental health housing, and behavioral health prevention services. Additionally, the House has more that doubled the state’s assistance to public children service agencies to address an influx of children who need care due to Ohio’s opiate crisis, NAMI said.

I join NAMI in urging the Ohio Senate to follow suit. Both parts of the Assembly need to commit to continuing Medicaid expansion, which helps families impacted by mental illness, including addiction.

We also need to be honest with each other about the issue of mental health. Shushing it won’t make it go away and playing the blame game is harmful to everyone.

And remember: Having a mental illness isn’t a moral shortcoming. It’s just extremely unfortunate chemistry.

The Way I See It Jason Hawk, editor Way I See It Jason Hawk, editor