Health Watch -- Treating Mental Illness

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New proposals for treating mental illness aim to lift the stigma and offer hope for recovery.

For much of the history of this country, mental illness was looked at as shameful, a personal weakness to be hidden away from the public. The way mental illness has been handled by medical and bureaucratic organizations has often reflected these views, focusing more on controlling symptoms than on achieving long-term recovery and treating mental illness like it's not as important as physical illness.

Now a commission has reported to the president that the nation's mental health system needs to be totally rebuilt with a new focus. Among the recommendations were some model programs for dealing with mental illness, including one that is a joint effort between UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.

This program makes it easier for community clinic doctors to care for patients with mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. The program provides clear guidelines for treating these diseases, with a step-by-step flow chart for medications, offering options at each step of the way based on how patients respond.

Because patients at public clinics may move from place to place for treatment, the program helps doctors provide uniform care because they're all working from the same guidelines. This program has proved more effective than other programs for reducing symptoms of mental illnesses, and now it may become a model for programs around the country.