“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.”

– Bill Clinton

May is recognized across our nation as Mental Health Awareness Month. For those of us struggling with mental illness, it is our opportunity to speak out against the stigma and discrimination based on misconceptions that we encounter daily.

Many Americans are unaware that recovery from a mental illness can be achieved through medication, psychotherapy, support groups, jobs, vocational training, self-acceptance, self-love and self-respect. When people are denied these vital opportunities only disaster can result. Given these realities, one can only wonder: what in the world is going on in Texas?

Today Texas ranks a dismal 49th in the nation on funding of public mental health programs. (Texas leads the nation and the world in the execution of convicted felons.) According to the World Health Organization, mental illness is the leading cause of disability throughout the world! Despite these facts, our legislators in 2003 passed a controversial bill (House Bill 2292) that basically gutted an already starved system. H.B. 2292 mandates that the state cut individuals from the public assistance rolls by making ineligible anyone with the following diagnoses: bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder (with suicidal ideation), and schizophrenia. And individuals with these diagnoses can lose their eligibility for future help by becoming stable and in control of their illness! The politicians’ thinking was that the state would only serve the “severely” mentally ill and provide no or limited services to “less ill” individuals.

As a result of this draconian legislation thousands of mentally ill individuals have been forced to use local charity and/or county hospital emergency rooms, become incarcerated (in San Antonio the largest provider of mental health “treatment” is the Bexar County Jail), or endure the horrible consequences of untreated mental illness. Consequences like loss of income, homelessness, substance abuse, not to mention symptoms like paranoia and other delusional ideation, uncontrolled anger, depression, hallucinations, and just a loss of self-esteem and chronic feeling of hopelessness!

To further exacerbate the situation, most consumers of the public system are poor people of color already facing a hostile society. As the U.S. Surgeon General pointed out in his report in 2001, accessibility to and quality of mental health services for Latinos and African Americans is inferior to those offered white consumers. The state legislature has for years funded mental health programs in north Texas at double the rate that it funds programs in south Texas. Considering the large number of Mexican American mental health consumers in south Texas, one must conclude that this is a racial issue.

Conservative politicians like to justify their actions based on “moral values” and economic responsibility. What they fail to tell us is that while the state has “saved” money as a result of H.B. 2292, the long-term consequences will be in the millions of dollars as a result of overcrowded emergency rooms, crime and incarcerations, and loss of valuable productivity from people who cannot work due to their illness.

In Texas it costs the state $10,000 to $12,000 yearly to provide treatment for an individual with mental illness in a public mental health clinic, compared to spending $40,000 to $55,000 yearly to keep the person in prison. Given these economic facts along with the horrible human suffering that H.B. 2292 has caused, we must ask what is so moral and economically responsible about this?

Another factor that must be considered is that, while our government squanders billions of precious tax dollars on an unjustified war in Iraq, our people go without both general health care and mental health care. This is neither just nor acceptable. It is our duty to hold our state and federal governments accountable for this gross waste of needed resources and to address the needs of those without health care benefits. What is ultimately needed is for the American people to organize and demand a universal health care system similar to what other industrialized nations enjoy. This will come about when we force the government to reverse its staunch opposition to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

People with mental illness do not seek charity or pity. We struggle for the same respect and justice allotted other citizens of our nation and of the world. As people become more aware and understanding of our situation, we are confident that we will overcome! Si se puede!

Frank Valdez (solidaridad@sbcglobal.net) has been a social justice activist since 1968. He has a diagnosis of major depressive disorder and currently serves on the board for the San Antonio affiliate of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Texas.