Editorial | Speak up on mental illness

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When a child has a fever or a rash that won't seem to go away, it's off to the doctor's office. Broken bones expedite a trip to the emergency room.

But somehow, we don't always treat emotional and mental well-being in the same way. And it's no wonder, the way our culture treats mental illness.

The comments and jokes about those with mental illness happen too often. Most people don't mean to be offensive, but it perpetuates the stigma of mental illness.

The Independence Center hosted a community forum last month to discuss mental and emotional well-being in children. Tamara Kenny shared the story of her son, Eli, who lives with bipolar disorder. The 17-year-old was diagnosed with autism earlier in childhood; around the eighth grade, he started showing signs of unusual behavior.

"There was a lot of rage that didn't make any sense. It didn't fit into his personality," Kenny described in a story this week.

The Independence Center, which provides community-based rehab for adults with severe and persistent mental illness, hosted the discussion. With an average of 8-10 years between the onset of mental health symptoms and intervention, the conversation needs to take place now, to help break down the stigma and fear behind mental illness. The hope is that through early intervention, we provide them with better care and avoid them falling through the cracks.

The consequences of untreated mental illness are real: About 10.2 million adults have co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Approximately 20 percent of homeless adults in shelters live with a serious mental illness. And about 24 percent of state prisoners have a recent history of a mental health condition. Ninety percent of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness.

This issue also highlights Review columnist Mike Eisenbath's story of living with clinical depression. He described feeling like he had no energy. His wife, Donna, described his mental illness as "a real illness that comes with real physical disabilities. It's not that you're lazy or don't want to do stuff."

The two share their story as part of "In Our Own Voice," an effort of the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The presenters ask people to learn about mental illness and to be more accepting of those who have a mental illness. The message they want others to hear: "We're people just like anyone else. People you might live next door to, sit in the pew in front of, work next to."

We all have a role in overcoming the stigma of mental illness. And that means speaking up. When you hear someone making a joke about mental illness, say something. When you see someone struggling, ask how they're doing. When we make connections and grow in our understanding, we create a foundation for people with mental illness to have better outcomes in life. 

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