Was 2016 The Year Mental Health Came Out Of The Closet?

Julie Stoller
Dec 31, 2016 · 7 min read
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Overburdened law enforcement, soldiers and PTSD, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, celebrities coming forward and election anxiety

The stigmatization of mental illness and the tendency to push mental health issues under the carpet is far from over, but the conversation has begun. The year 2016 has been chock-full of news stories, discussions and public figures in solidarity or coming out of the closet with their personal struggles. Whether your daily news source is the local newspaper, network television, NPR or Facebook and Twitter, it’s hard not to notice that mental health issues have been popping up with great frequency.

Police, with Minimal Training, on the Frontlines of Mental Health

In response to a string of controversial police shootings, officers have been expressing their frustration at being placed in the difficult position of having to be first responders for people suffering with mental illness. It was reported by NBC News back in March that “half of people killed by police have a disability.” The report they cite, published by the Ruderman Family Foundation, found that police officers “have become the default responders to mental health calls.” The Springfield, Missouri News-Leader confirms that police and mental health professionals in their community are overwhelmed by the number of mental health sufferers in need of assistance. In this report, a sheriff states that their jail has been used as a dumping ground for people with untreated mental illness, and the city has been involved since 2011 in special training for officers in how to recognize and deal with mental illness. They also have a mental health liaison on the beat with police to attend to mental health calls. This isn’t always the case. How police handle such potentially delicate situations varies from state to state.

The crisis of the mental health system — closures of psychiatric hospitals, lack of psychiatric outpatient facilities and the need for better training and more comprehensive mental health care and support — was outlined in a 2014 USA Today news story. However, these dire circumstances and the strain on police forces received new attention this year. There were local news articles about the broken health care system and reports about the country as a whole, particularly with regard to police training. Reuters reported on the situation in California and new initiatives for police sensitivity training in how to handle mental health issues.

The good news is that 2016 seemed to be the year for stepped up efforts in special training for officers and, when possible, pairing them with mental health professionals. There are still not enough well-trained police to deal with mental health situations, and obviously this doesn’t take the place of the extreme need for nationwide outpatient care and support services, but it’s a start.

Soldiers, PTSD and Suicide

Military families struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have been speaking out in greater numbers this year, in their frustration over the lack of attention, resources and treatment for returning soldiers that suffer from PTSD.

According to CareForYourMind.org, it is estimated that 30% of the 1.7 million veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom are suffering from a traumatic brain injury or mental health condition such as depression or PTSD. What’s more, veterans have a 41–61% higher rate of suicide than those who haven’t served. A RAND study that was published back in February stated that while the military’s health program was effective at making contact with soldiers diagnosed with a mental health condition, it fell short on providing continuing care. In recent years, there have been state budget cuts in mental health care, a loss of psychiatric hospitals and a rise in mental health patients showing up at hospital emergency rooms that aren’t properly staffed for adequate treatment. Fortunately, there has been increased discussion about this, such as this article about the effects of mental healthcare budget cuts.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder Hits the Headlines in This Year’s Election Cycle

Although not as widely known about or understood as depression and bipolar disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a Cluster B personality disorder, as classified by the American Psychiatric Association. The Mayo Clinic further discusses its symptoms, causes, risk factors and treatment. What makes NPD especially difficult to diagnose and treat is that those afflicted don’t think they have a problem. According to Wikipedia, “People with narcissistic personality disorder are characterized by their persistent grandiosity, excessive need for admiration, and a disdain and lack of empathy for others. These individuals often display arrogance, a sense of superiority, and power-seeking behaviors.” NPD came out of the shadows at the start of our recent election cycle, with a major article in Vanity Fair. Several professionals in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy and social work weighed in on then presidential candidate Donald Trump and what one referred to as his “textbook narcissistic personality disorder.”

Narcissism and NPD continued to be considered and discussed in major publications such as The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, The Independent, The Washington Post and The Guardian. Now that Mr. Trump is president-elect, this subject will likely remain at the forefront of public discussion. Whether this will be a productive discourse about a mental disorder and its social ramifications is a matter of debate, but it has certainly captured the public’s attention.

Celebrities Speaking Up and Coming Out

Support for the mental health community got a big boost this year from celebrities, with individuals and families speaking honestly about their own experiences and struggles. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and their 2016 Voice Awards, which recognizes leaders in the field and television and film professionals who “educate the public about behavioral health.” Recipients of the award for 2016 included actors Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard. The Huffington Post highlighted 13 Celebrities Who Put A Spotlight On Mental Health This Year, which includes statements from Hillary Clinton, Prince William, Lena Dunham, President Barack Obama and others. Bruce Springsteen, in his autobiography “Born to Run,” writes in depth about his lifelong struggle with depression.

In the unlikely arena of hip-hop and rap music, high-profile entertainers displayed a great deal of courage in coming forward with honesty about their battles with stress, anxiety and depression. If mental illness is seen as a “weakness” in our culture, nowhere is that more prevalent than in the African-American hip-hop community. But that is slowly changing, and this year mental health had some very powerful spokesmen. Rapper Kid Cudi posted a heartfelt Facebook message to his fans, explaining his need to seek help for his depression, which was also reported on in Rolling Stone. The Atlantic published an article discussing the stigma of mental illness and how musicians’ personal stories this year are beginning to change public opinion. Kanye West’s recent hospitalization, reportedly for stress and exhaustion, led to further discussion of the hip-hop culture and mental health issues in The Washington Post and The Guardian. The support that he and Kid Cudi have received from their fellow musicians and fans, and the serious discussion all this has spawned, is surely a good thing for the ongoing efforts to destigmatize mental illness.

Our Stressful Election

The stress of this year’s U.S. presidential election has seemingly pushed many of us to the edge of our coping ability. All that hateful rhetoric; the racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic factions that split our country apart and created hostilities even in families and among friends has taken its toll in terms of our well-being. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, 52 percent of American adults reported that the 2016 election was a very or at least somewhat significant source of stress. This survey was conducted a month before the election. After the election, the level of stress was even greater. This was especially the case for certain segments of the population, such as the LGBTQ community, that felt marginalized or even threatened by the results. The Verge reported that suicide prevention hotlines were deluged with calls. John Draper, the project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said, “We haven’t seen anything like that in our history.”

Local media outlets reported on record numbers of people feeling depressed or anxious — and this held true even if their candidate won. Around Thanksgiving, faced with family get-togethers that involved awkward confrontations with political adversaries, fear and anxiety became a serious issue for many not accustomed to feeling this way. This was such a problem that New York Magazine even published “A Post-Election Action Plan for Anxious People” to help those people cope with uneasy feelings.

So, Where Are We Now?

The silver lining, of course, is that with so many people experiencing newfound anxiety and depression, being drawn out of their daily routines to seek help and support, there comes a wider awareness of mental health and our vulnerability. Things are not always ok. We can’t always “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” And there’s no shame whatsoever in admitting, after treading water for so long in the depths of that fathomless ocean, that we might be in need of a life raft to help us reach the shore.

Out of shared experience, comes compassion.

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