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The Criminalization of People With Mental Illness in America: The Need for a Collective Vision

Americans deserve a dynamic and engaging approach to mental health care. This includes system change where governmental policy makers on every level are aware of the importance of the promotion of mental health.
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The World Health Organization's slogan, that there is no health without mental health, is well known. In America this tag line conveys a similar message that policy makers need to establish a consensus-based mental health agenda that accomplishes diverse goals. There is no dispute that the current state of mental health in America is in crisis. Without consensus, however, it is fair to ask how innovation and change can occur that builds upon the vision of recovery, responds to the system failings which churn crisis, and promotes justice and public safety. I further ask how America will make that shift away from an over-reliance on the criminal justice system and activate the overall health in community settings.

Perhaps an answer can be found in reviewing the mental health definitions of The World Health Organization (WHO). For example, according to WHO, mental health means more than an absence of mental disorders. As defined by WHO, "Mental health is a state of wellbeing in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community."

Consider the implications of a wellbeing standard of mental health. How would a broader narrative impact social stigma and discrimination? One can opine that a wellbeing definition of mental health is inclusive, restorative and consistent with our nation's ethos of the American dream. Ideals which are based on the principles of justice, equality, and opportunity for prosperity and success.

Americans deserve a dynamic and engaging approach to mental health care. This includes system change where governmental policy makers on every level are aware of the importance of the promotion of mental health. It also includes policy measures that emphasize the importance of strengthening intersectional strategies, as set forth by the WHO Mental Health Gap Action Program. Among others, they include early childhood interventions, anti-poverty initiatives, school based programs, and protection and promotion of human and legal rights.

While the Mental Health Gap Program include a number of important goals and objectives, it is the tone and relatability of the message I am focused on. Our leaders and policy makers must establish a collective consensus on mental health which rejects stigma and promotes recovery and access to care. Perhaps it is worthy to consider embracing a mental health agenda based upon the state of wellbeing. An agenda which is expansive and supports the basic ideals of our democracy, based upon equality, the protection of legal rights and an opportunity to live the American dream.