Coping with, and getting help for, mental illness

Howard Neighbors

May 05, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

Your spouse has cancer. Your child has diabetes. Your sister has multiple sclerosis.

Diagnoses like these are difficult for patients and families to accept. Still, the very act of sharing the news engenders support. Neighbors bring meals. Friends offer help while the patient undergoes treatment. The boss understands you may be late to work.

For people with brain disorders and their families, the scenario can play out in a different manner. Because of the stigma of mental illness, the process of accepting a diagnosis, finding treatment and garnering support can be an excruciating journey.

This is the case despite the fact that mental illness is more common than cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Nationally, one in five families is affected by serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

Up to half of all visits to primary-care physicians are related to conditions that are caused or exacerbated by mental or emotional problems, according to the National Mental Health Association.

Consider this statistic from NAMI: The No. 1 reason for hospital admissions nationwide is a biological psychiatric condition.

There is a lot of suffering in silence.

Howard County, the nation's fourth-most affluent county, according to a 2004 U.S. Census Bureau report, is no exception. Its affluence may contribute to the stigma surrounding brain disorders: In a success-oriented environment, who wants to admit that problems exist?

Fortunately, there is somewhere to turn. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill -- the nation's largest grass-roots mental health organization -- has a Howard County chapter, led by Executive Director Susan Helsel.

NAMI Howard County is a nonprofit organization committed to improving the lives of people and families living with mental illnesses, defined as physical brain disorders that profoundly disrupt a person's ability to think, feel, and relate to others and the environment.

Helsel says it is hard to document how the chapter was formed. "It started in 1979, with a group of parents of young adults with mental illness," she said. "They found each other and started meeting informally as a support group."

In 1983, they officially became incorporated as a nonprofit. Helsel sits in the neatly organized NAMI Columbia office that is packed with literature. The space is provided by the Howard County Mental Health Authority, a Core Service Agency created in 1991 to plan, manage and monitor publicly funded mental health services.

Here, Helsel directs the Howard County chapter's education and advocacy initiatives for the mentally ill. "A mental illness is an illness like any other," she said.

NAMI conducts a range of activities supporting and advocating for the mentally ill. First are its support groups: for family members and friends who care for an adult with mental illness; for parents and caregivers of children; and a peer-based support group for people living with mental illness.

Information on NAMI's programs -- which are free and open to the public -- are available on its Web site:

Deanna Green, consumer program coordinator for NAMI in Howard County, is an "In Our Own Voice" presenter, providing a first-person account of what it is like to live with mental illness.

"NAMI taught me about the biology of mental illness," said Green. "All these years beating up on yourself when you've just been seriously ill."

Green describes how society often labels people with mental illness as having "character flaws." She describes her journey toward acceptance of her bipolar disorder and the message of compassion she derived from the NAMI national training to be an "In Our Own Voice" presenter.

"It's a powerful message," she said, one that can help educators, law enforcement personnel, health care providers, churches and community organizations better understand mental illness.

Mark Faber works at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center on the Hubble Space Project by day, but he has been involved in NAMI for 15 years and has served on NAMI's board of directors in Howard County for four years.

Faber is a support group leader in the adult program. He also has served as co-leader in Maryland for "NAMIWalks -- Walk for the Mind of America," a national fundraiser that allows NAMI to provide its free programs.

"A lot of family members are overwhelmed when they get a diagnosis [of mental illness]," he said, adding that "resources are few and far between."

Faber said that NAMI identifies the cycle that most everyone goes through when dealing with a diagnosis of mental illness -- whether they are in the middle of a crisis, learning how to cope or moving into advocacy. Support group leaders are trained to help.

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