Mental Illness: Who’s Scamming the System and Who Needs Help?
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Mental Illness: Who’s Scamming the System and Who Needs Help?


scamming the system(This post was originally published in May 2014.)

About a year ago, a very good friend of mine flew into a manic episode that lasted eight months. She had never shown any signs of mental illness until one day, out of nowhere, she just started sleeping with strangers and formulating a “master plan” to rule the world. No one could get her to see a doctor because she didn’t feel sick, she felt amazing! That is the trick with mania; you are flying so high you don’t want it to end. Then one day you wake up and realize you bought a house on your Visa card.

Insides to Outsides

While she might have felt great, she didn’t act great. In eight months, she managed to lose everything: her boyfriend, her job, her apartment, her car and most of her possessions. She also alienated every friend she had. It was ugly. And because I was one of the friends who suffered as a result of her disease, I couldn’t be there for her. I couldn’t even be near her. She was like the Tazmanian Devil in a china shop and it seemed to never end. Finally, her parents found her stranded in the desert—with nothing but a bikini and her laptop—and shipped her home.

But mental illness can show itself in a variety of ways. I hate to be the one to break this to you but if you struggle with addiction, then you struggle with a mental illness. While some may be sicker than others—as many of us deal with co-occurring disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder or PTSD—all of us understand what it’s like to be overcome with fear, anxiety and depression, often to the point of mental and physical debilitation. Both as active users and in recovery, we are not only exposed to our own illness but also to the illness of others around us (especially if we live in Hollywood). If you are one of the lucky ones who are capable of getting honest with yourself about your disease, then you have a chance at treating it and living a full life. But we aren’t all that lucky.

Taking Steps Backwards

USA Today is doing a series of stories focusing on the price we are paying—financially, socially and, if you ask me, spiritually—by cutting mental health budgets and leaving the mentally ill to fend for themselves on the streets and in jail cells. According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 40% of adults classified as having a severe mental illness, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, received no treatment in the previous year. And 60% of adults classified as having any mental illness at all were left untreated.

I am not going to lie; I know almost nothing about politics, the state of the US economy, or football. But I do know about a lot about alcoholism and depression. When I am in a state of mental or chemical imbalance, it’s the scariest place I know; I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody (except maybe my ex-boyfriend). The feeling of intense and terrifying isolation is something only another alcoholic or massive depressive could understand. Which is why it makes sense that funding for mental health care continues to take hits. Unless the person making final decisions about budget cuts and funding allocation has first hand knowledge of this less than desirable state of mind, throwing thousands of dollars at an emotional disease must seem like taking piles of money and just setting them on fire.

Mentally Ill or Just Mental

The article in USA Today is long and covers a variety of anecdotal stories interwoven with statistics about how we are not caring for our mentally ill. The numbers speak for themselves, I suppose, but I have to question how accurate they are. Growing up in Boston, I knew a few lower-income families who made it their full-time jobs to figure out ways to live off the system. I once knew a girl that worked at the local grocery store who paid a guy from the neighborhood to fracture her wrist during a smoke break. She then spun it into a work-related accident so she could collect disability pay. The bottom line is, people lie and commit fraud all the time and I imagine the mental health arena gets it the worst. If a drug addict can fake back pain to get prescription medication, people who need money will probably fake mental illness to collect SSDI or SSI.

That might be one of the biggest challenges in providing sufficient health care in our country: weeding out the fakers. It’s hard—especially since most people are afraid of the mentally ill. If I was a therapist and some guy flipped out in my office, faking it or not, I think I might end up signing any paperwork he wanted me to just to get him to leave. But the real victims of mental illness continue to suffer, in their own mind and in a system that doesn’t have enough or the proper resources to help them deal with the jail cell of their own mind.

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.