Stigma and fear shroud the facts about mental illness

There are those who would hide from it, who would live as if inside a walled city, as did those in medieval times who would escape the plague.

But this is an illness no walls can stop. It is genetic, neurological; it enters us from within. And it is an illness, a treatable medical condition.

The great tragedy of our enlightened age is that so many die so young for lack of treatment. This because, unlike diabetes or heart disease, mental illness is still shrouded in ignorance and stigma. It is somehow the victim's or the victim's family's fault.

Hence, fewer than one-third of adults and fewer than one-half of children with a diagnosed mental illness receive the treatment they need. And, on average, those who have a serious mental illness live 25 fewer years than those who do not.

Mental illness does not favor one population over another. It is found in every community, however rich or poor. One in four adults experiences a mental health problem in any given year. One in 17 lives with a serious, chronic illness.

That is why, in 1990, in recognition of the efforts of the National Alliance on Mental Illness to raise awareness of the realities of mental illness, Congress designated the first full week of October "Mental Illness Awareness Week," which this year begins today.

But, though this may be the 22nd year of marking that occasion and much progress has been made, the stigma and ignorance persist.

And, at a time when services for the treatment of mental illness are needed more than ever, as millions try to cope with the stress of unemployment and thousands of veterans return from the wars, states across the nation have been cutting funding for those services. From 2009 to 2011, states have cut mental health spending by nearly $1.6 billion.

When those services are cut, jobs and careers are lost, families are broken, more people become homeless and the costs spiral for hospital emergency rooms, nursing homes, schools, police, the courts and prisons.

Lest you think this a distant problem, it can be as close as your next-door neighbor. It can be as close as your child.

Ask Ralph and Ginny Oriola of Danielson how they felt when they got a call from Quinnipiac University: "You need to come get your daughter," they were told. "She's suicidal."

Ask Nancy Calderbank of Glastonbury what it was like to learn that her son had paranoid schizophrenia.

Ask Bonnie B. Sherman of Hamden how she coped with the discovery that her daughter was afflicted with manic-depression.

Ask Rick Connel of Farmington what he did when he learned that his daughter had bipolar disorder.

What they and hundreds of others like them have in common is that they found a way to cope and to help their children to recovery through the education and family support provided by NAMI/Connecticut.

In Connecticut, there will be several events to commemorate Mental Illness Awareness Week. The Oriolas are holding a candlelight vigil; Connel has organized a vigil and prayer service in Avon; there will be a speech in Fairfield by the renowned Dr. Daniel Koenigsberg, winner of the 2012 NAMI Exemplary Physician Award, and there will be a conference at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.

This week is an opportunity to learn the facts and end the myths that too often surround mental illness.

To learn more about mental illness support, education and advocacy, visit www.namict.org.

Tear down the walls.

Kenton Robinson is the deputy director of the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board and previously worked as a reporter and editor at The Day.

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