Sherry Young: The mentally ill can still lead productive lives with help

Published: Wednesday, April 24 2013 4:50 p.m. MDT

Caseworker Cheryl Boone helps a client with paperwork during a therapy session at the Johnson County Mental Health Center Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, in Shawnee, Kan.

Charlie Riedel, AP

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There has been much attention paid in the newspapers and by Congress as to how our gun laws should work. While this is well and good, for me there is another side of the story. Since May is National Mental Health Month, now is a good time to add a dialogue about mental illness to the gun debate.

The people who do these mass shootings often are people who are mentally ill. Had they somehow gotten the attention they needed, they may not have participated in the senseless violence.

A few years ago, I read "On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon," by Kaye Gibbons. She also wrote "Ellen Foster" and "Charms for the Easy Life," among others, and has received acclaim for her efforts.

To my surprise, I discovered she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and writes all her best work when she is in her most difficult state. She joins the ranks of many intelligent and creative people with mental illness who have become famous, among whose ranks are Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf and Robert Lowell. Because Kaye Gibbons is willing to share the details of her life, she helps put a more positive face on mental illness.

In ages past, people would hide mentally ill family members so that the entire family would not become pariahs in their communities. My husband had an older cousin and I had an aunt who were referred to most mysteriously by family members. They wasted away their lives behind closed doors.

Mental illness is something people still hesitate to admit has entered into their family’s life. It can be very frightening. Even with all the advances in the treatment of the illness, facing the fact that a child may be afflicted is extremely difficult. Parents often worry that it is their fault and the illness will reflect on them as parents. Accepting the fact and finding help are very important because an untreated child has a high risk of suicide, and with modern medicines is given the chance to lead a relatively normal life.

Recognizing mental health as a treatable problem and finding the funds to deal with it are major issues that should be confronting all of us. Statistics show that every year one out of five Americans — adults and children alike — experience a mental disorder, and more than 7 percent of us experience one of the three types of serious mental illness — bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression — at some time in our lives.

You may not be aware, but alcoholism and substance abuse are classified as mental illness. Drug abuse is often a result of self-medication for mental illness.

Too many times we avoid facing the fact that this problem exists in the world until someone we love or care about becomes ill. Once they become ill, it is usually beyond a family’s ability to deal with all the problems, and there must be places for them to go for assistance.

Because of the many advances in both drug intervention and research in brain functions, mental illness is highly treatable if recognized early and dealt with by competent people. Mental illness cannot be treated as separate and unequal to physical illnesses. We, as a community, should be willing to sacrifice some time, some money and some of our space to allow people to live as fellow human beings.

Mentally ill people are not strangers. They are our brothers, our mothers, our children and our friends. They are the people whose books we read and whose art we admire, or as in many cases, just ordinary people for whom life has given an unequal burden and who need our help.

There are many talented and valuable people who deserve a chance, just as Kaye Gibbons had, to reach their potential without stigma or fear of discrimination or the hell of living forever within a troubled mind or perhaps being left on their own to commit acts of violence.

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