Hearing on Mental Illness: Many Do Not Seek Help Because of Stigma

Boston City Councilor Felix Arroyo held a hearing on Tuesday night to address how to get rid of the stigma surrounding mental illness in the Boston area.

If you're concered about the number of murders in Boston each year, here's a sobering statistic: More deaths are caused by suicide each year than by homicide. 

Recognizing that many people feel uncomfortable seeking help for their symptoms of mental illness, at-Large Boston City Councilor Felix Arroyo held a hearing addressing the stigma surrounding mental health on Tuesday evening. 

 “It is easy for people to say ‘I am an asthmatic,’ but it is harder to say ‘I have mental illness,’" Arroyo said. "We need to work to get rid of that stigma because it is the quickest way to allow folks to seek help.”

According to a 2011 report from Boston Board of Health Commission study, nine percent of adults in Boston in 2010 reported persistent symptoms of depressions, meaning that they felt sad or depressed for longer than 14 days within a month. In 2009, 30 percent of Boston public high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks straight within the past year. Arroyo said that according to that same report, 12 percent of Boston public high school students had seriously considered to commit suicide that year.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to continue a conversation that is desperately needed throughout the country,” Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee Chair Elizabeth Malia said. “It is very timely that we address this now.” Malia said that now is the most important time to discuss mental illness after the events in Newtown, CT on Friday, December 14.

Malia said that the stigma surrounding the mentally ill acts as a barrier to recovery and conversation. “We have taken on this myth that there is no recovery.”

Dr. Deborah Allen, Director of Child, Adolescent and Family Health at Boston Health Commission said that the demand for mental health. “This year, mental illnesses were among the top five most diagnoses for children in the United States for the first time in history,” Allen said. “Asthma, which we think is so common, was number six on that list.”

John Verre, assistant superintendent for Special Education and Student Services said the public schools have tried to bring in bilingual school psychologists and adjustment councilors so that no children slip through the cracks.

Laurie Martinelli, executive cirector of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the Federal Government found one in five people will encounter mental illness in their lives. “It is mind boggling that we have to combat this stigma when this issue is so prevalent,” Martinelli said.

Martinelli added that Boston Police Department received 20,000 calls for services relating to mental health or emotionally disturbed cases in 2009. 

“In 2010, almost 500 people committed suicide in Massachusetts,” Martinelli said. “That means more people died from suicide than homicide in the Commonwealth.”

NAMI Latino President Carmen Rivera spoke about her son, Luis, a student at Brookline High School who began exhibiting symptoms of adult onset Schizophrenia in 1994. For four years, Luis would go to treatment. Rivera wanted to commit her son to an institution for his own safety, but she said that the doctors told her that they would not take him unless something happened.

“I said ‘you want to wait for him to do something wrong to take him away?’ And it happened,” Rivera said. Luis Rivera was convicted of first-degree murder of Mathew Hudgins and was sentenced to life in prison. “I am here to encourage people and families to learn more about this illness.”   

The portrayal of the mentally ill in pop culture was a common theme. “The psycho killer image associated with mental illness makes us seem dangerous,” Howard Trachtman of NAMI said. “It is not fair. We are five times more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators.”


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