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Making Mental Health a Safe Conversation

Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the United States, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and left untreated costs the economy $200 billion every year. (Engin_Akyurt/Pixabay)
Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the United States, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and left untreated costs the economy $200 billion every year. (Engin_Akyurt/Pixabay)
May 14, 2019

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Studies show that more than 43 million Americans suffer from mental illness, but less than half - 43% - receive treatment.

May is Mental Health Month, and professionals in the field say it's a good opportunity to have hard conversations. Wendy Giebink, executive director of the South Dakota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the stigma of mental illness can sometimes prevent people from talking openly about the issue, and can limit help for those who need it the most.

"One-in-5 people is going to be experiencing a mental-health condition in their lifetime, and many people that we know are experiencing them right now,” Giebink said. “So taking time to talk about this, I think, is really important."

On Saturday, NAMI South Dakota will hold its 16th annual NAMI-Walks event at Sertoma Park in Sioux Falls to raise awareness and funds for programs that address mental illness. Registration is required and can be completed at namiwalks.org/southdakota.

Giebink said 50% of mental-illness symptoms begin before the age of 14, and 75% begin before age 24. She said that's important because suicide is the second leading cause of death for youths and young adults in South Dakota.

"We really don't know everything we need to know in South Dakota,” she said. “We don't know where our resource gaps are. We don't know the best way to find solutions to the problems that we are identifying. And as we identify some of these problems, then we can maybe address some of them legislatively."

A 2016 murder case in South Dakota has raised concerns about whether those afflicted with mental illness should face the death penalty. Twenty-four-year-old Heath Otto admitted to killing his mother and young nephew but later was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Prosecutors have yet to announce if they will seek the death penalty, which is allowed under state law.

But Giebink said NAMI's position is consistent.

"NAMI's position nationwide is that people who commit a crime while they are mentally ill or if they've been diagnosed and they are not being treated or whatever the situation is, that they should not receive the death penalty,” she said.

Giebink noted treatment for mental illness is 80% effective for those who receive medical care.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - SD