Daniel J Vance

A January report released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration claimed 20 percent of U.S. adults experienced a mental illness in 2010 and five percent had a serious mental illness, with the latter corresponding to about 11.4 million adult Americans.

The report defined “serious mental illness” using words mirroring those the federal government has used for years to define “disability.” The highest rate of adult mental illness in terms of age was among 18 to 25 year-olds.

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Though North Carolinian Pender McElroy doesn’t have a disability due to a serious mental illness, the 71-year-old business attorney nonetheless has been a mental health advocate 30 years. He is board chair of Virginia-based Mental Health America, founded 1909, the nation’s largest nonprofit addressing mental health and illness issues via advocacy and education.

Said McElroy in a telephone interview, “What drew me to this cause was that the mental health and well being of our American citizens is incredibly important to the functioning of society, productivity of business, and happiness in families. When a person has mental health difficulties, it’s like a ripple in a pond. Mental illness affects family members, friends, coworkers, and society in general. (Mental Health America) has much work to do yet about the stigma regarding mental illness and in convincing private and public policy makers about the importance of early detection and intervention in childhood and adolescents.”

Years ago, McElroy served on a North Carolina Mental Health Commission committee with a man in his 30s diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. Said McElroy, “He would share with me some challenges he was facing in his illness and recovery and how he was working toward mental health. He felt so strongly that America was asleep at the switch regarding mental health. He said not enough attention was being paid to it, there were inadequate programs, and too many stigmas. Yet he was proof positive a person can have a very serious mental illness, be a fully contributing member of society, and work hard and effectively in the mental health movement.”

He added, “We still have people in this country, including many highly educated people, who feel (serious) mental illness is (self) controllable and simply a state of mind. They believe brain chemistry has nothing to do with it and that these people should cure themselves. There is so much misinformation out there.”

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