Caroline Wittenberg, a Milwaukee writer and young professional, reflects on the city’s mental health system by sharing her own personal experiences, and pointing out the obstacles those suffering from mental health face in receiving adequate care.
According to the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division, about 180,000 people in Milwaukee County struggle with mental illness, yet only about 20,000 of those people are receiving treatment.
I would like to preface this piece by acknowledging I am not a doctor, a mental health professional, nor an expert by any means on the subject. However, I do read a lot and it doesn’t take someone with MD after their name to understand that the mental health system in this country and Milwaukee County is deeply troubled.
Over the past year, I have both suffered from depression and overcome it. It’s something that took me a while to admit to myself but once I did, I began my journey to recovery by taking the proper steps that a depressed person should do to attempt to “correct” it.
I exercise regularly. I am a healthy person. I try to stay positive. When days are bad, I lean on my friends and family for support. But depression is an ugly beast and even in light of my efforts, these things were not working. Which is why when my counselor at the time suggested antidepressants, I said yes.
She gave me the name and number of a nurse practitioner and said that he would help me secure an appointment. I had looked into antidepressants before and opted to try and overcome my depression using the natural route.
Here’s the thing about antidepressants: when you don’t have a primary care physician, and your counselor cannot prescribe antidepressants for you, your options for seeking out information about the drugs are limited. In my case, I would have had to go to a separate psychiatric facility, consult with a psychiatric specialist there, and continue seeing that individual in addition to regular appointments with my counselor. That’s two different insurance bills, two separate sets of paperwork, and scheduling two sets of regular appointments. In other words, that’s one enormous obstacle to getting the treatment I wanted.
I understand that mental health is not to be taken lightly and that the above measures are in place for a reason. However, I find the whole process to be cumbersome and frustrating. When I called the number referred to me by my counselor, I spoke with someone who wouldn’t provide me with basic information about antidepressants unless I had a regular doctor there and came in for a psychiatric evaluation and appointment (although when I attempted to set one up, she seemed at a loss for how to go about doing so).
If it was difficult for me, what is it like for people who don’t have any health insurance, have far more severe mental health problems than depression, and don’t even have a cell phone or know where to start when it comes to understanding what kind of treatment or medication they need?
I read an article from Milwaukee Public Radio earlier this year about a “community-based” method of treatment, rather than institutional, in which patients are treated in group settings and on their own terms rather than under the restrictive model outlined above. However, mental health in Milwaukee and more widely, on a national scale, is considered a taboo subject. It’s very hush-hush. No one likes to acknowledge that they may experience mental health issues and yet when they do acknowledge it — bravely, with emotion, and likely as a result of a particularly traumatic episode — and they voluntarily seek to gain treatment for it as I did, they shouldn’t encounter any obstacles. And yet, sadly, they do.
I’m not by any means proposing that everyone who suffers from some sort of mental health-related issue should receive a container of little white pills; it’s not so open-and-shut or black-and-white as that. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a professional health practitioner. I don’t have MD in my name.
However, I am suggesting that from the statistic cited above, there are more people than you might think who suffer with something like this. If you stop and think about it for a second, I guarantee you will be able to come up with an example in your own life. It might be your neighbor, a family friend, a friend of a friend, or someone much closer to you than that, but it’s out there and it’s common.
Bottom line: there should be an open dialogue about it. There should be a number of resources anyone can access at any time no matter their financial state, what kind of insurance they have or if they own a cell phone.
It’s not the fault of the nurse practitioner I called or of the medical community. It’s the fault of a system that is slowly but surely changing…but not nearly fast enough.