Recovery can be beautiful

Each of us has experienced or knows someone who has experienced the devastating effects of a mental health disorder. The World Health Organization has found that these disorders are the single greatest health problem in North America. One in five Americans has a diagnosable mental illness and one in 12 has a substance use disorder; often the two are disabling companions in the same individual. Yet only 45 percent with mental illness and 11 percent with a substance use disorder receive the treatment that is necessary to restore their lives.

The reasons for this are varied. Sometimes the individual is not willing to acknowledge the disease or are afraid they will be stigmatized in the family, at the work place, and in the community. Too often it is because the individual does not have access to vital treatment resources. If people with diabetes or heart problems had the same lack of access to treatment as mental health disorders, society would likely not tolerate it.

None of us is immune to the societal effects of untreated brain disorders. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, untreated mental illnesses in the U.S. cost more than $100 billion a year in lost productivity. The health care system is burdened with treating associated physical diseases, and law enforcement agencies and the judicial system struggle to find solutions to problems that arise from untreated mental health disorders. Representative Tim Murphy, a child psychologist leading an effort to remodel the mental health system in Pennsylvania, said in a CNN interview addressing the lack of resources for individuals suffering from mental health disorders, “We have replaced the hospital bed with the jail cell, the homeless shelter, and the coffin.”

Perhaps the greatest toll of all is the human toll exacted from families and loved ones. Stability is shattered and hearts are burdened beyond belief when a loved one is unable to function normally. Family members may not feel emotionally, or perhaps even physically, safe around their loved ones when they are profoundly ill.

Is recovery from mental illness and substance use disorders possible? In 2003 the final report from the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, established by President George W. Bush as part of his commitment to eliminate inequality for Americans with disabilities, called for recovery to be the “common, recognized outcome of mental health services.” The Commission defined recovery as “the process in which people are able to live, work, learn and participate fully in their communities.”

I talked with three members of House of Hope, a peer support program for adults living with mental health disorders in Washington County, about their recovery. Although there are staff members at House of Hope, members are largely responsible for maintaining all aspects of the facility.

Marie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, characterized by extreme emotional and physical highs followed by crippling lows. She said she spent money she did not have and made poor choices, including turning to alcohol and drugs for relief of symptoms. After years of treatment and medication for the disease, she feels she has found balance and belonging, greatly due to participation at House of Hope. As a member and a person on the agency’s board of directors, she says she has found a place where her participation is needed and necessary, and where she is an integral part of a supportive community.

Daniel, also a board member, lost his mother at an early age and experienced many family and personal problems in his youth. He says that a severe anxiety disorder and alcohol misuse made it impossible to lead a balanced, productive life. But he has found acceptance at House of Hope, where no one ridicules him for the tremors he cannot always control, and where he finds relaxation, acceptance and light-heartedness.

Dolly experienced verbal and emotional abuse from a family member before it finally became physical and she had to leave. Her severe depression left her nearly mute for several years. She laughingly notes that once she found her voice, she rarely let it rest. She became an advocate and consumer leader in the community, helping to establish House of Hope and participating in many recovery initiatives across the state. As a trained peer supporter, watching others begin to heal inspires and motivates her along her recovery journey.

There is a unique beauty in the recovery of individuals from mental illness and substance use disorders to a life graced with stability, empowerment, and most importantly, hope. At one time, Marie, Daniel and Dolly could not imagine rising above despair. But with treatment and recovery supports, they were able to once again live productive and meaningful lives.

There are many individuals and families in our communities in need of transforming recovery. The Washington County Behavioral Health Board is committed to providing the services and supports to foster that recovery. The board has experienced severe funding cuts and currently operates on significantly less funds than 10 years ago — this despite the fact that demands for treatment for mental illness and addiction have increased.

Out of 88 counties, Washington is one of only 12 that do not have a mental health levy. In November of 2017 our board will have a .5 mil levy on the ballot, which would generate $737,000 annually and nearly double the funding available to the board for prevention, treatment and recovery support services. More information about the levy will be available on the campaign Facebook page (facebook.com/wcbhb) and website (wcmhl.com).

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to remember that recovery is possible and immeasurably beautiful; it requires all of us to make sure that Washington County citizens have the tools necessary to live mentally healthy and addiction-free lives.

Miriam Keith is a staff member of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board. Behavioral Health Matters appears on the Opinion Page on the last Saturday of the month.