While it’s a good sign that people are paying more attention to mental health and the challenges thousands of people face in Bexar County, when it comes to understanding mental health and mental illness in our society, we still have a ways to go.

A big part of addressing our shortcomings will be coming together as a community to help people get treatment sooner — and to provide support during recovery and beyond. Another part will be correcting misconceptions surrounding mental illness.

Too many people still believe violence is directly correlated to mental illness, yet research clearly shows, as Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison, CEO of The Center for Health Care Services recently wrote, “mental illness does not predispose individuals to violent behavior. In fact, people who suffer from mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence.”

At the National Alliance on Mental Illness, we deal daily with families and individuals affected by mental illness and only occasionally do we receive calls surrounding an act of violence by a person living with a mental illness. In fact, people living with mental illness are most often able to reclaim their lives and live in the community.

The Treatment Advocacy Center has found:

  • Most individuals with serious mental illness are not dangerous.
  • Most acts of violence are committed by individuals who are not mentally ill.
  • Individuals with serious mental illness are victimized by violent acts more often than they commit violent acts.
  • Being a young male or a substance abuser (alcohol or drugs) is a greater risk factor for violent behavior than being mentally ill.
  • No evidence suggests that people with serious mental illness receiving effective treatment are more dangerous than individuals in the general population.

We estimate nearly 400,000 Bexar County residents will have a mental health disorder of some kind every year. That’s 1 in 5 people who will face a mental health problem. Signs of mental illness can include changes in behavior that don’t look normal, isolation, anger and changes in sleep patterns.

It is important for everyone to understand that once they see signs of a mental health disorder, the sooner people get help, the better the outcomes. Indeed, one of our goals at NAMI is to encourage people to seek help before a crisis occurs. Help and referrals to counselors are available at no cost by calling the NAMI WARM Line at 210-734-3349.

Sadly, too many people don’t get help early enough and end up in hospitals, in jail or living on the street. Too many people end up not being able to live full, productive and happy lives. Typically, 50% of mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24. But nationally, people wait 10 years or more before seeking treatment. An illness that doesn’t get treated gets worse, whether it’s a broken leg or a mental illness.

Collaboration among social service organizations, our faith communities and leaders, our city and county behavioral health departments, our schools, our law enforcement and courts and others is necessary and can get people the help they need when they need it.  

Furthering this collaboration is one of the goals of NAMI’s 7th annual Pathways To Hope Conference. The conference takes place at the Tobin Center on Aug. 26 and 27 and will bring the community together to continue the discussion about mental health and the resources available in our community for people dealing with mental health disorders. There is no cost to attend.

As we all work together to address mental health issues, we can reach our goal of enabling people to live and thrive in a healthy community.  

Doug Beach is president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness San Antonio and member of the Texas Department of Health and Human Services' Behavioral Health Advisory Committee.