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Brain as body part

Jun 6, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

The president's mental health remarks bring a longtime Ranger reader to mind

President Obama probably never met Alice List of Riverton, but remarks he made this week bring her to mind. Alice died recently, and we recall the many visits she made to our newsroom as she worked diligently and energetically to try to make Fremont County residents aware of mental health issues.

Alice was a dedicated newspaper reader and an intelligent, educated woman with a good sense of both humor and scholarship. A family member had a mental health issue, and Alice knew firsthand the challenges visited upon a family that had no choice but to confront this worry.

On Monday in Washington, the president convened the National Conference on Mental Health. In his opening remarks he referred to the same problem that Alice List articulated so many times, namely that there is an inexplicable and unfair stigma attached to mental illness.

He drew laughter from the crowd when he noted the amount of mass media advertising that deals with health problems of somewhat dubious natures that now are discussed openly and freely. He wondered why a similar comfort zone can't be reached with mental health.

"Let's face it," the president said, "the brain is a body part too."

Alice List said not long ago that if the American public can tolerate an unending parade of TV commercials about Viagra and the "ailments" that it treats, then we ought to be able to speak about mental illness and the many related health problems that spring from it.

Alcoholism. Drug abuse. Depression. Post traumatic stress disorder. Irrational fears and anxieties. Phobias. Spousal and child abuse. Sexual abuse. Suicide. Any and all of these conditions can and usually do occur completely separate from the maniacal behavior that so many of us assume defines mental illness.

What Alice List was so intent on telling anyone who would listen was that mental illness can, and must, be treated. And treatment often can have outcomes just as favorable as any other form of health treatment.

The president said as much Monday, urging Americans to get rid of the embarrassment that causes us to whisper about mental health issues rather than confront them. "We need to see to it that men and women who would never hesitate to go see a doctor if they had a broken arm" will drop the reluctance to seek treatment for a mental health concern, the president said.

One somewhat unanticipated benefit of the decade-plus of overseas conflicts that have engaged the U.S. military in combat and near-combat activities has been an increase in public awareness, sensitivity and understanding of mental health issues faced by military personnel who have undergone extreme mental trauma. Part of the whole "support our troops" effort has been a heightened understanding of the need for better mental health care for veterans.

That same awareness needs to translate to Americans out of uniform.

The mediocre level of diagnosis, treatment and positive outcome would not be tolerated at such low levels if the illness were cancer or a pandemic virus. That we are still willing to accept such a poor performance record in mental health care is a crisis extending from the president's national conference at the White House to the anguished individual sitting alone in a darkened room.

The president is asking us to do better. So did Alice List.

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