The month of April has brought with it another mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas. This is the second mass shooting at the Army base since 2009 and according to Mother Jones, the 67th mass shooting in the U.S. since 1982.
Following mass shootings, two common public discussions seem to arise—gun control and mental health. Usually the two get blended together and it becomes about those with mental illness accessing guns. We’re not going to talk about that. In fact, we’re going to take guns out of the equation completely and strictly talk about mental health.
While mental illness is often brought up in the context of these shootings – it’s suspected shooters Jared Loughner, James Holmes and Adam Lanza may all have had some form of mental illness – mental illness does not necessarily drive those who deal with it to commit headline-grabbing crimes. Mental illness can be much more subtle and much more common than these incidents lead us to believe. In fact, the National Institute on Mental Health estimates about one in four adults ages 18 and over suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
Mental health disorders include everything from depression, bipolar disorder, suicide, schizophrenia, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, eating disorders to personality disorders. Yet, despite the common nature of mental illness, those experiencing mental health issues may have difficulty getting treatment.
Mental illness still carries a huge stigma, causing embarrassment for those with mental illness that often prevents them for reaching out for help when they are struggling. Fear of being judged as unstable, potentially violent or “crazy” can prevent those with mental illness from getting the help they need. Access to mental health care also has historically been a challenge.
Because coverage for mental health issues was not on equal standing with coverage for other medical issues, Congress passed the Mental Health Parity Act in 1996. This law prohibited large employer-sponsored group health plans from imposing higher annual or lifetime dollar limits on mental health benefits than those applicable to medical or surgical benefits. In 2008 Congress passed the The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 to close some of the holes that where in the original parity act.
Still, just as with other medical issues, factors like living in a rural area, income, insurance, and other factors can hinder access to care.
Technology is one possible way to help breakdown stigma and barriers to care and can provide a tool to help raise awareness and build support. Here are some ways the tech community can help those with mental illness.
Therappy is an online community of discussion forums. Therappy’s goal is to become the leading community and source of information for everyone involved in mental health technology. Therappy is a new community, it just launched in March, and it is looking for those with an interest in how technology can affect mental health to participate in the discussions.
Target Zero to Thrive is the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance’s new social media campaign that runs during April. The campaign “challenges mental health care professionals, researchers, and individuals living with or affected by mood disorders to raise treatment goals to complete remission—to zero symptoms.” As the organization points out, cancer treatment sets a goal for a patient to become cancer free and the same standards should be for treatment for those with mood disorders. Reducing symptoms is not enough, the target of zero symptoms is what’s needed for patients to thrive. By visiting the Target Zero campaign site, you can find ways to support the campaign this month.
WeCounsel is an online counseling website for mental health care providers, patients and healthcare organizations. It provides users with a HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform that connects mental healthcare providers to their clients online. The website allows secure and confidential videoconferencing for online counseling sessions.
Getting the word out about mental health resources was the focus of a recent challenge sponsored by Johnson & Johnson. Participants were tasked with coming up with ideas to increase awareness and use of mental health services for depression and anxiety disorders. The winners of the challenge where Tulane University graduate student Alejandra Leyton and University of Maryland medical student Veena Katikineni. The pair proposed a solution called MHealth for Mental Health which is a free SMS text service that sends “relevant information to people between the ages of 15-49 years old who present with symptoms of depression or anxiety, as well as the community at large with the hope that members will refer one another to the service.”
Smartphone apps are another possible tool for improving mental healthcare. It should be noted that while many exist, few have hard scientific evidence to back up their claims of effectiveness, say researchers at the Black Dog Institute at the University New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
But some users already swear by them. A recent New York Times article, delved into the use of mindfulness smartphone apps to combat anxiety. The ease and convenience of use is a main part of the appeal of these apps.
If you want to join in the mental health discussion on Twitter you can follow the hashtags #mentalhealth #mhtech #mhchat or #mhsm.
Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ
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