Mental illness is out of the closet

June 11, 1999|By Carl T. Rowan

WASHINGTON -- Mental illness has always been something to hide. So great has been the stigma of mental illness that, in most societies, it has been political suicide for any leader to admit any association with it.

But now we get what, incredibly, is the first White House conference ever on mental illness with the woman who wants to be first lady, Tipper Gore, pleading for an end to "the last great stigma of the 20th century" while the woman who is first lady applauds.

It wasn't long ago -- 1972, in fact, when Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern dropped then-Sen. Tom Eagleton, a Missouri Democrat, as his running mate after Mr. Eagleton admitted that he had been treated for depression. Have the prejudices of Americans changed so much since then that this mental health conference does not put the Gores and Mrs. Clinton at political risk?

We must hope so because mental and personality disorders, including anxiety, depression and manic depression, afflict millions of Americans at some time. It is estimated that one in four women and one in 10 men can expect to develop depression at some point in their lives. The stigma prevents thousands of people from revealing their illness or from seeking the psychotherapy and medication that have proven to be successful treatment.

People who would never ridicule or humiliate people with physical ailments have built up a rich vocabulary of insults for those with mental disorders. We say they are "crazy as a bedbug," "have bats in the belfry," "have a loose screw," "have somebody missing upstairs," "are not dealing with a full deck" or they simply are "not all there." That is enough not only to drive people into silence, but also to enrage them.

Mrs. Gore talks openly of being treated herself for depression after her son was almost killed in a traffic accident in 1989 while leaving Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.

Hurray! It is absolute folly to wring hands over inexplicable murderous outbursts on school campuses, or anyplace else, if we are unwilling to lift the stigma and shine some light on the shadows and eerie crevices of the human mind.

Only people at the top of government, eliciting the support of notables who once suffered from depression, such as newsman Mike Wallace of CBS, can lift the stigma and enable millions of people to get the mental health treatment they desperately need.

So many Americans with mental illnesses are "hiding in the closet" that it is impossible to know the magnitude of the need for treatment. President Clinton is pushing Congress to expand a 1996 law that prohibits health-care plans from setting lifetime payment caps that are higher for physical illnesses than for mental illnesses.

Because millions of people will not say openly, "I need care for a disease of the brain," it becomes easier for insurance companies and groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers to oppose broader mental health-care entitlements on grounds that they would "raise the cost of coverage."

It is long past time that we stopped looking at mental illness in terms of the blame and shame that we heap upon the victims. We should applaud Mrs. Gore and the White House for pointing the way out of the darkness.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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