PUBLISHED: 4:06 PM on Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Mental health in the capital city
Having recently moved to Juneau from New Jersey, I am constantly struck by how different my surroundings are. I consider myself fortunate to live in a place of such beauty, with so many outdoor recreational opportunities, and in a vibrant community of people who are so involved in the arts, Alaska Native culture, and have such diverse interests.

As a psychiatrist who has worked in many hospitals, I consider it a privilege to be given the opportunity to practice in the new Mental Health Unit at Bartlett Regional Hospital. This is an exceptionally well-designed facility, with many features that provide for the safety and effective treatment of patients.

The new Mental Health Unit represents a significant investment by the community to help people recover from an all too common affliction. Bartlett is to be commended for supporting a staff of dedicated mental health professionals. We are joined in our efforts to address the mental health needs of the community by the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health, Inc., Juneau Youth Services, Gastineau Human Services, and SEARHC, as well as the several private psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors working in Juneau.

But in many ways, Juneau has a distressing similarity to every other place I have been in the United States. There remains, even among the most highly educated, an incomplete understanding and a lack of acceptance regarding mental illness.

Mental illness comes with such social stigma that many people are in deep denial, refusing to acknowledge that a loved one may need treatment. In addition, all too often problems involving alcohol or drug abuse are dismissed as something other than what they often are: a symptom of mental illness for which the individual is self-medicating. And all too often, awareness only dawns when a loved one has serious legal problems or attempts suicide.

To effectively treat mental illness, we must be able to identify those who suffer from it. At least one-third of the people reading these words will suffer, at some point in their lives, a medically recognized mental disorder or illness for which some type of treatment would be prescribed if only it was brought to the attention of a mental health professional.

Such disorders span a broad spectrum, and treatment is correspondingly varied. One of the most common mental disorder is depression, ranging from that which virtually everyone experiences at some time in their lives due to personal or professional setbacks, to severely disabling forms caused by persistent bio-chemical imbalances.

At the extreme of mental illness you will find psychosis (a profound detachment from objective reality), a relatively uncommon but debilitating constellation of mental illnesses.

One of the difficulties often faced by individuals struggling with mental illness is the belief that any recognition of their difficulties is proof of an extreme problem or profound weakness. I am often asked, "Does this mean I'm crazy?" It is a near universal fear that impedes many from seeking treatment. To my way of thinking it is similar to jumping from "I have high blood pressure" to "I will be crippled by a stroke" without stopping to consider all of the ways that outcome can be prevented.

Those who often find themselves depressed, who lack energy, and find it difficult if not impossible to enjoy life will usually find that they can benefit from professional help. Modern medical and psychotherapeutic approaches have proven effective at resolving a broad range of challenges. In short, treatment works.

The consequences of not seeking help can be profound. The most obvious is suicide, which leaves in its wake families and friends burdened for their remaining days with guilt and regret.

The all too common consequences of mental disorders are the distress, distraction, and disharmony that it imposes on families, companions, friends, and the community, which loses, to one degree or another, an individual's productivity, creativity and involvement.

Help is available. Contact Bartlett Regional Hospital by calling 796-8900, or contact the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health, Inc., at 463-3303, or ask your physician for a referral.

Paul Topol, MD is a Board Certified Psychiatrist and Medical Director for the Mental Health Unit at Bartlett Regional Hospital. He holds medical privileges in Adult Psychiatry, Adolescent and Child Psychiatry, Chemical Dependency and Detox, and Electroconvulsive Therapy.