We've been in the dark too long on mental illness

Luis Fábregas
| Monday, March 18, 2013, 10:29 a.m.

Unlike most people, Jim Gleason has no problem talking about mental illness.

He doesn't mind telling you about a daughter with schizophrenia who sometimes has conversations with people that don't exist. Gleason and his wife, Theresa, have become intimately familiar with mental illnesses, a topic that's suddenly the talk of the nation.

“It's a shame that it took Sandy Hook to have this conversation,” Gleason told me, referring to the Newtown, Conn., shooting that left 20 children and six faculty members dead. The tragedy sparked a nationwide debate over gun control versus the need for better tools to monitor mental illnesses.

Gleason, 58, of Washington believes the more we understand mental illnesses, the quicker we can rid society of rampant stereotypes.

“The stigma is so great, it's terrible,” said Gleason, a retired coal mine supervisor who sits on the state board of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, or NAMI.

We're probably all to blame. We casually use terms like psycho, whack job and nut case. We believe the mentally ill are serious threats that must restrained. We have a faulty understanding of the mentally ill, based solely on fictional characters we watch on TV shows such as “Homeland” and movies such as “Silver Linings Playbook.” And too many of us mistakenly believe that the mentally ill can never be normal.

Yet there's no escaping the harsh reality: One in four adults experiences a mental health disorder in a given year, whether it's schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder or another behavior that could be classified as mental illness.

NAMI and its leaders are eager to alter the way we think. Next month, the organization will present one of its signature programs, called Family-to-Family. The educational program tackles mental illness head-on, putting aside misconceptions and replacing them with facts. It consists of weekly, two-hour classes over a 12-week period that are taught by people who've had their own experiences with mental illness.

Christine Michaels, executive director of NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania, told me the majority of families who participate have been caught off guard by the diagnosis of a loved one.

“They are exhausted; they are frustrated; they are very angry,” she said. “They know nothing about mental illness … and they have a million questions.”

The misunderstandings often cause people to go without treatment. They ignore what can be very treatable symptoms and instead build a wall of silence or resentment around them.

The Gleasons know what that's like. Their daughter, Lori, was 24 when she began hearing voices eight years ago. The parents took her to a local hospital, confused about what was happening.

“We were lost in the wilderness,” Gleason said, explaining how Lori wouldn't shower for days, couldn't hold a job and became easily irritable. In a church bulletin, they found out about the Family-to-Family program. Both of them called it a godsend.

“The education we received not only brought us relief, it also gave us a sense of being able to accomplish something that would help our daughter move forward,” Gleason said.

We're lucky to have groups like NAMI. To take advantage of their wealth of resources, or for more information about the Family-to-Family program, call 888-264-7972, or email info@namiswpa.org.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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