A Publication of WTVP

America’s Other Pandemic

by John F. Gilligan |
American Pandemic Art

On average, 20% of all adults in America wrestle with various degrees of mental health issues, from mild to moderate to severe impairment. A larger percentage of young adults, approaching 30%, struggle with the same issue.

When it comes to serious and disabling mental illness, that number exceeds the entire population of Illinois, 12.67 million.

Among adolescents, 22.2 percent are estimated to have severe impairment.  School systems can easily be overwhelmed with problems such as identity and personality disorders, drug abuse and overdose, depression, suicide, violence, anxiety, and the list goes on.

America has been plagued by self-inflicted deaths including suicide, drug overdoses, DUIs and youth street killings.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the year 2020, 12.2 million people seriously thought about suicide; 3.2 million made plans for suicide; 12 million attempted suicide; and 45,979 died by suicide. That’s one death every 11 minutes. Sadly, these statistics have been increasing without interruption since the 1990s.

Then there’s the nation’s substance abuse crisis, from alcohol to narcotics, including the recent opioid epidemic and now the deadly fentanyl. The National Institute of Drug Abuse has tracked overdose deaths since 1999. That year, there were 20,000, which rose to 38,329 in 2010, then spiked to 93,000 in 2020. This national tragedy of lost lives and human talent crossed 100,000 this past year.

The data on mental illness and substance abuse show a 30-year non-stop growth trajectory. It’s why it’s called a pandemic. 

Two things have become abundantly clear. First, there’s a significant population of the seriously mentally ill and addicted, approximately one-third, who do not seek treatment and even refuse it when offered. Second, there are few, if any, effective, proactive strategies to engage this population.

The disengaged are mostly located among the homeless and incarcerated.  Prisons and jails have become major holding centers for the mentally ill and addicted. And most live out their lives in loneliness, illness and misery.

Wanton school shootings are another American tragedy. Every killing, with rare exceptions, was perpetrated by individuals who were clearly identified by at least one member of their community as disturbed and dangerous. But there was no system in those communities to address these extraordinarily complex cases.

Only half of the 51.5 million Americans struggling with mental health challenges receive treatment.

State hospitals across the nation have closed. Illinois, once a model of mental health care and addiction treatment, lost that distinction well before the end of the last century.

While this national transition was occurring, large numbers of veterans, many with PTSD, were swamping the streets of urban America. They are now another variant of our 21st century national crisis.

Furthermore, only half of the 51.5 million Americans struggling with mental health challenges receive treatment.

Few give much thought to the impact this has on our nation’s productivity. If America’s greatest resource is its people, how can our nation afford to lose all this talent?

The hard reality is that the resources available to meet current requests for services are limited. There are too few providers and long waiting lists. Many sit hours if not days in emergency rooms. Furthermore, given the volume of the population in need, the current ways of providing mental health and addiction are financially unsustainable. And the pandemic grows.

So, what’s to be done?

Abraham Lincoln said it: “As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew…”

Ultimately, it comes down to the local community. The problem affects the quality of life of the entire community. Any effective community solution involves the participation of every institution: medical, educational, judicial, religious, business, non-for-profit and volunteer organizations. Clearly, no one person or institution knows everything or can do everything. But a community of collaboration, cooperation and coordination can harness its creativity, knowledge and skills for the greater good of all.

The good news is that central Illinois has an excellent history of working together.  Mental health and addiction services are not only excellent but expanding. Our community mental health centers, once competitive, along with UnityPoint’s behavioral health programs, have merged into a single corporation to provide more efficient and cost-effective services. UnityPoint’s Young Minds Institute, a child and adolescent mental health facility, is underway. OSF is building a large psychiatric impatient facility. And all benefit from the expertise of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria.

The good news is that central Illinois mental health and addiction services are not only excellent but expanding.

There are other community institutions responding to this pandemic, from county health departments to drug and mental health courts, from the United Way to Alcoholics Anonymous and various faith communities.   

This speaks well of central Illinois.

All action begins locally; it’s where everything gets implemented or fails.  Yet there still remains one-third of the seriously mentally ill population that is disengaged, unknown, unseen and uncared for.

John F. Gilligan

John F. Gilligan, PhD

is a clinical psychologist and president emeritus of Fayette Companies. He lives in Groveland