WASHINGTON – At the far right end of the head table,Jordan Burnham sat upright in his wheelchair and began to read his personal narrative. Regularly switching his focus from the audience to his paper,the 18-year-old became the center of attention.
“I would like to share with you a story today,” he began. It was the story of Sept. 28.
That evening,the high school senior from Philadelphia,just nominated to homecoming court,jumped out of his ninth-story bedroom window in a suicide attempt.
Burnham's parents were told their son had a 40 percent chance to live,and if he survived,the varsity golfer would be paralyzed or mentally retarded. His mother had just gone to the golf course with him the for the first time the day before.
“It is by that 40 percent miracle that I am here today to tell you that there are millions of people that are having the same emotions inside that I had that night – but with your help their outcome does not have to be identical,” Burnham told the crowd at a Capitol Hill briefing.
Like Burnham,Emmy award winning actor Joe Pantoliano was popular in school – voted his high school's best dressed. And like Burnham,”The Sopranos” actor was diagnosed with depression.
Both men came to the May 21 briefing to ask Congress for mental health awareness and insurance parity.
Sponsored by Pantoliano's nonprofit organization,No Kidding,Me Too!,the briefing brought together celebrities,representatives,mental health organizations and others to discuss how to erase mental health discrimination and stigma.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health,an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans 18 and older suffer from a mental disorder,a medical condition that disrupts a person's thinking,feeling,mood,ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Although mental disorders are widespread,serious mental illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion – about one in 17. Serious mental illnesses include major depression,schizophrenia,bipolar disorder,obsessive compulsive disorder,panic disorder,post traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.
Two-thirds of people with diagnosable mental disorders do not seek treatment,according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and No Kidding,Me Too! believes this choice is directly connected to discrimination and stigma.
“It's not just a psychological illness but a physical ailment,” Pantoliano said. “It should be given the same respect as other body parts.”
Pantoliano argued that heart patients are given pacemakers as a preventive measure,but those with mental illness don't get treatment until he or she “breaks.”
No Kidding,Me Too! is focusing the efforts of the entertainment industry to help meet its goal. Entertainers who depict characters with mental illnesses can make society more aware.
Supporting Pantoliano at the briefing was Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden,Pantoliano's co-star in the new movie “Canvas.” In the movie Harden portrays a mother and wife with schizophrenia. Pantoliano plays her husband.
Harden departed from her prepared remarks to talk about having a family member with a mental illness,as well as being the daughter of a military father with post traumatic stress disorder.
“How can we send our men and women into war,for whatever reason,but not support them on the way home?” she asked.
“Canvas” also brought light to Panlionio's family's struggle with mental illness.
“I thought my mother's behaviors were behaviors that she chose – that she actually chose to be like that. I had no idea that my mother was living with bipolar disorder,or diagnosed clinical depression,” he said.
The briefing also highlighted the real-world costs of mental illness.
Joe Santiago,the father of three,sustained a head injury in his first 30 minutes of serving in Iraq. The former Army master sergeant came home with post traumatic stress.
“People with dramatic brain injuries generally don't let you know that stuff is wrong,” said Santiago,who ignored his injury for three weeks before seeking help.
The New England Journal of Medicine found in 2004 that 15.6 to 17.1 percent of those who served in combat operations in Iraq met the screening criteria for major depression,generalized anxiety,or post traumatic stress disorder after duty. Of those whose responses were positive for a mental disorder,only 23 to 40 percent sought mental health care.
Rep. Jim Ramstad,R- Minn.,spoke of reaching the goal of achieving insurance parity through legislation. Ramstad is the lead cosponsor of the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007,which would require equal health insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses when policies cover both.
The act was passed by the House of Representatives on March 5 and the Senate passed a different version last year.
“We've got to end the stigma against mental health illness. It's time to knock the down the discriminatory barriers of treatment. It is time to treat mental illness like the public health crisis it is. It truly is America's number one public health crisis,” Ramstad said.