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Editor’s note: Negotiated headspace

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Editor’s note: Negotiated headspace

Dan Whisenhunt, Editor and Publisher of Decaturish.com and TuckerObserver.com speaks to the Decatur Rotary Club on March 4, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.

May was Mental Health Awareness Month, and for the last 10 Mays I’ve wanted to write this column. 

I’ve always talked myself out of it. 

I know we’re all more open and tolerant about mental illness these days, which is as it should be. I’ve been open about my Bipolar 2 diagnosis in conversations with my colleagues and the community. It’s not a state secret. Even so, I’ve never wanted to draw attention to it because I’ve never wanted to be defined by it. 

Even in 2023, there’s still a bit of a stigma surrounding mental illness. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but still. Discussing it in a very direct and public way is a little scary. 

But I think it’s important to acknowledge there are many people in our community who are mentally ill and thriving. There are also many people in our community who are mentally ill and falling through the cracks due to our broken healthcare system. 

My mental illness is not a recent development. From about age 7 or 8, I’ve been in counseling in one form or another, and I suppose I will be until the end of my life. I’ve gone without it at times, with mostly terrible results. When I’m in treatment and medicated, I do all right for myself. I get work done. I dream about the future. I make plans and then make plans for when the first set of plans inevitably don’t work out. 

I am lucky because I have the luxury of decent healthcare and a network of people who care about me, despite how insufferable I can be when I’m symptomatic. (Sorry, y’all.) Far too many people in our community don’t have anyone to prop them up when they are falling down. Instead of getting proper treatment, they get locked up in the county jail because no one knows what to do with them. 

As we have noted in our investigative story about deaths at the jail, that’s really not the place you want to be if you’re having a mental health crisis. Yet, that’s where many people go when they have nowhere else to go. 

With increased recognition of mental illness comes an increase in people diagnosed with it. The services we provide aren’t keeping pace. Throw in economic pressures created by inflation, the spotty track record of insurance companies in covering mental healthcare, and the wide availability of substances that allow people to self-medicate, and you’ve got a recipe for bad outcomes. 

As I started writing this, DeKalb Police were in a standoff with a man in Lithonia who was having a “behavioral health crisis” and had barricaded himself in his home. By the time I finished writing this, police had shot him, sending him to the hospital in critical condition. He died. 

It was a predictable outcome. The police are often tasked with cleaning up the mess our pitiful excuse for a healthcare system creates. 

As we increasingly recognize the mental health struggles of our community, we are also grappling with questions about accountability. To what extent does someone’s mental health absolve them from facing the consequences of their behavior? 

In May, we published a story about Michelle Wierson, who caused a crash that killed a five-year-old. Her lawyers argue she had a psychotic break and have offered to plead guilty to misdemeanors. Prosecutors say the break was caused by her decision to allegedly discontinue medication and that it should be a factor in determining her criminal liability. The current laws on the subject don’t speak to this question, and a high court will likely have to make that call. 

In April, we published a story about a Beacon Hill parent in the midst of a mental health crisis who beat up an 11-year-old student. She was sent to Grady Hospital for a mental health evaluation and released. She returned to Beacon Hill Middle two days later, hit a school employee, and bit a police officer, triggering a lockdown. 

Some readers have asked whether a mental health crisis is a valid defense for people accused of violent crimes, particularly when the victims are children. As a parent of a young child, I wonder about that as well. 

Speaking as a functional adult with a treated mental illness, I know that there’s still a long way to go before our public policy and healthcare system catch up with reality. 

I was discussing this conundrum with a friend of mine recently, and he suggested that we need systems that can recognize and support people who are struggling. We also need systems of accountability, but they are difficult to design or manage at this point. Drawing the line is and always will be space that is actively negotiated. 

Currently, we are nowhere near where we should be in terms of offering mental healthcare to people who need it. Based on my own experience, I know one thing that we should do is mandate that health insurance companies cover basic mental health services like therapy and medications at little or no cost. Money is a barrier to treatment far too often. I am lucky enough to have the means to afford my $100 monthly counseling sessions. Many of us do not. 

I also think there needs to be some kind of mental health screening before someone can purchase a gun. There’s probably zero chance in hell of that happening, but it’d be helpful if it did. 

Aside from those policy suggestions, we could all benefit from empathy and understanding. Mental illness is not as taboo a topic as it used to be, but in many ways, it is still poorly understood. 

If you haven’t had experience with mental illness, and there are very few people these days who haven’t, then it’s worth taking some time to educate yourself. Learn more about it before you render judgments on other people. And if you do have an untreated mental illness and access to health care options, invest in yourself. Don’t self-medicate. Don’t stew in your own misery. Get help. 

I did, and I’m thankful for that. I wish everyone could have the same opportunity to get their mental health in order. 

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