When Clifford Beers declared more than a century ago that “I must fight in the open” on behalf of people with mental illnesses, he struck a chord that would resonate for years to come. I imagine that it would disappoint him to know how slow our progress in this fight has been.

Myths matter

There are still too many myths about people living with mental illness: that they are prone to violence, unusually resistant to treatment and services and, when very ill, typically don’t even understand the nature of their conditions. We’ve created these myths in part by being afraid to look clearly at mental illnesses and listen closely to the people who have them.

Fighting in the open is the only way to bust myths, and change minds.

“We can protect mental health, but only if we are willing to talk about mental illnesses openly.”

Confronting the problem

Today, mental illnesses remain the only chronic diseases that as a matter of public policy we typically wait until Stage 4 to treat. In Beers’ day, when people became too ill to remain with families, we sent them to large institutions. We no longer do that. We still wait far too long to intervene, but then rely on jails and prisons instead.

Every chronic health condition should be addressed early, not late. We can move people toward recovery, but only if we take mental health seriously. We can protect mental health, but only if we are willing to talk about mental illnesses openly.

As a lasting legacy to Clifford Beers, millions take part in commemorating Mental Health Month each May. Every year, we open a dialogue and talk openly about what mental health is and what mental illnesses feel like.

Creating a movement

The challenge is to move those listeners to action. We need them to help strip the stigma from mental illness and end discrimination against people who have mental illnesses. We need them to join the fight to address mental illnesses the same way we address other chronic diseases, through prevention, screening, early identification and early intervention.

We need them to demand that in practice we integrate mental health care and services with other health and social services, just as we do for other chronic conditions. And we need them to tell public officials to stop treating only what they consider to be “serious” mental illness, and to treat all mental illnesses seriously.

There is so much more we could do to promote recovery and mental health if we act before Stage 4—before crises occur, families are destroyed, educational opportunities dry up, jobs are lost and lives are compromised. We need to keep fighting in the open, and make all lives matter.