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Letters to the Editor

August 11, 2020

I Vote Through the Lens of Mental Health

I watched the Sheriff forums, eager to hear the candidates’ views on mental health, especially their ideas about how people with mental illness are treated by law enforcement officers in crisis situations. I was disappointed that many of the candidates do not understand how important this issue is for our community, from an economic as well as a social perspective.

A decade ago, serious mental illness consumed my family. Before that, SMI was not on my radar, but it should have been. Mental illness affects about 1 in 5 adults and serious mental illness affects about 1 in 24. Over half of mental illnesses begin by age 14.

Stigma prevents many from speaking out, which is sad, because that’s the only way we can improve mental health care and save our families and communities. Despair and living in crisis mode make it hard for families to advocate, and many individuals with SMI are not able to speak up for themselves.

Here I am a decade after my loved one was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I’m on the lookout for a Sheriff who wants behavioral health professionals to respond to mental health crises, who wants to lower the percentage – 35% — of people with mental illness in our Broward jails, a Sheriff who likes the Stepping Up Initiative (www.stepuptogether.org).

I watched the State Attorney forums to see who supports diversion programs for people with mental illness who, as a result of their illness, may commit non-violent crimes and need treatment rather than incarceration. Diversion programs save lives and money.

The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness as a medical problem, just like heart disease or diabetes. I am waiting for leaders to say that people with mental illness of all colors should be treated without stigma. Like my black and brown friends, I don’t want to be afraid to call 911.

–By Gayle Giese, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Advocacy Group, Broward County; Administrator, Florida Mental Health Advocacy Coalition. Note that NAMI Broward County is hosting a State Attorney and Chief Public Defender Forum on Wed., 8/12: https://namibroward.org/event-information/?ee=5017

Reference to American Psychiatric Association and mental illness statistics may be found here: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness

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