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by Tribune Staff

Mental illness, which is generally characterized by dysregulation of mood, thought, and/or behavior, as recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV), affects one of every five adult Americans—some 40 million people. And mood disorders are among the most pervasive of all mental disorders. This includes major depression, in which the individual commonly reports feeling, for two weeks or more, sad, uninterested in things previously of interest, hindered or delayed body or muscle movement or agitation, or increased or decreased appetite since the depressive episode ensued.

July is National Black Mental Health Awareness Month. And as is the case with almost every issue, topic and challenge in America, African-Americans are impacted by mental illness in disparate ways.

For example, according to the U.S. Department Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health:

• Poverty level affects mental health status. African Americans living below the poverty level, as compared to those over twice the poverty level, are three times more likely to report psychological distress. This is particularly critical as the rate of poverty among Black Americans is nearly 2.5 times the national rate, according to the 2014 Census.
• African Americans are 10 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-Hispanic whites.
• The death rate from suicide for African American men was more than four times greater than for African American women, in 2014.

Director of the Metropolitan Human Services District Dr. Rochelle Dunham has noted that trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the chief mental health issues in the three-parish region served by MHSD’s network of behavioral health clinics. MHSD is a state agency that serves Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquesmines parishes.

Another area of mental health awareness that Dr. Dunham has said deserves heightened attention, particularly in larger urban communities that wrestle with high rates of violent crime, is the link between untreated mental illness, substance abuse and crime. In fact, a study published in by the Howard Law Journal in December 2015, titled Reforming Mental Health Law to Protect Public Safety and Help the Severely Mentally Ill, noted these findings among others on the relationship between crime, substance abuse and mental illness:

• Mentally ill people are disproportionately victimized by violent crime. The largest crime-reducing benefit of helping persons with mental illness would be in reducing crimes against the mentally ill.
• Some types of severe mental illness increase the risk that a person will perpetrate a violent crime. Risk varies based on many other factors, such as substance abuse or unemployment. Many of the risks are from secondary effects of the mental illness; for example, cognitive difficulties make employment difficult or impossible.
• Untreated severe mental illness is particularly significant in homicide—the extreme end of the criminal spectrum. Such illness is even more significant for mass murders of strangers.
• Treatment of severe mental illness—best accomplished by a combination of therapy and drugs—can greatly reduce violence by and against the mentally ill.
• Many mental ill persons who seek treatment do not receive it. Mental hospital beds per capita in the U.S. are lower than they have been since 1850.
• Over the last half-century, mental hospital capacity has dwindled, while prison and jail capacity has vastly expanded. Mentally ill prisoners comprise a large fraction of the jail and prison population.
• Compared to imprisonment, treating a mentally ill person in a mental hospital is at least four times as expensive, on a  month-by-month basis.

Meanwhile, it is important to recognize some signs of mental illness to help determine if you or a loved one needs help. While recognizing the difference between normal, expected behaviors are and what might be the signs of a mental illness isn’t always easy, there are some common signs of mental illness in adults and adolescents can include:

• Excessive and/or unwarranted worrying or fear
• Feeling excessively sad or low
• Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
• Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
• Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
• Avoiding friends and social activities
• Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
• Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
• Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
• Changes in sex drive
• Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
• Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
• Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
• Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
• Thinking about suicide
• Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
• An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance (mostly in adolescents)

Mental health conditions can also begin to develop in young children. Because they’re still learning how to identify and talk about thoughts and emotions, their most obvious symptoms are behavioral. Symptoms in children may include the following:

• Changes in school performance
• Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance,

fighting to avoid bed or school
• Hyperactive behavior
• Frequent nightmares
• Frequent disobedience or aggression
• Frequent temper tantrums

Dr. Dunham wants residents to know that MHSD is open and available for those who find themselves suffering from mental health issues. If you live in one of the parishes served by MHSD and believe you or someone you know may be exhibiting signs of mental illness, call 504-568-3130 or visit for assistance or information.


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