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Writing becomes a way to cope with mental illness for Pittsburgh-area residents

| Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, 10:25 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Matthew Newton, 36, of Churchill was one of 12 people to win a fellowship to write about his experience with mental illness. He listens to creative writing instructor Lee Gutkind at the University Club in Oakland on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Creative writing instructor Lee Gutkind leads a workshop Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, at the University Club in Oakland, helping people write about their experiences with mental illness.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Zoe Hooley, 28, of Bloomfield wrote about her stay at a psychiatric unit in Chicago after she had drunk too much alcohol as part of the 'Writing Away the Stigma' project. Here, she attends a workshop with creative writing guru Lee Gutkind at the University Club in Oakland on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Creative writing instructor Lee Gutkind leads a workshop at the University Club in Oakland, helping people write about their experiences with mental illness on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013.

Andrea Laurion revolted in fourth grade against taking the orange little pill that prevented distractions from overwhelming her.

She ran away from home. Her father's frantic searching finally convinced her he really did love her, despite his frequent demands for her to act normally.

Laurion, 28, of Lawrenceville is one of 12 people who won fellowships from the Staunton Farm Foundation to write about their experiences with mental illness as part of a project called “Writing Away the Stigma.”

“I'm convinced one of the ways we'll change the face of mental illness is by people telling their experiences, and we've been discouraged from sharing them,” said Joni Schwager, executive director of the foundation.

About one in five Americans will experience a mental health condition every year — anything from depression to addiction. About 60 percent of them will not get treatment, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We have a lot of human capital that's not being used effectively when we don't connect people to treatment and services, because mental health conditions are treatable and people recover,” said Debbie F. Plotnick, senior director of state policy for Mental Health America, a nonprofit group in Alexandria, Va.

The fellows attended five creative writing workshops to learn how to articulate their thoughts. The foundation will post their stories on its website in early January and may publish them for wide consumption. The stories will be read publicly.

Laurion battled the stigma of attention deficit disorder throughout school.

“The school system isn't set up to deal with kids like me,” she said. “Maybe I'm not meant to sit up in my desk for hours.”

Lauren Shapiro, 34, of Squirrel Hill was trying to enjoy a family vacation in Puerto Rico last Christmas when she learned of her father's suicide attempt. Matthew Newton, diagnosed with severe clinical depression when he was 15, wrote of his relationship two decades ago with a girlfriend who threatened to kill herself.

Plotnick said telling personal stories about mental illness is therapeutic for the writer as well as the reader.

“Everyone has a different experience, but hearing you're not alone is helpful on a basic level,” agreed Newton, 36, of Turtle Creek.

Lee Gutkind, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and founding editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, ran the workshops. He said the fellows' work exceeded his expectations.

“They're driven by the pain and triumph of their stories,” he said.

The makeup of the workshop, though, demonstrated the gender stigma linked to mental illness. There was only one male writer. Only 10 of 80 applicants for the fellowships were men.

“That has to do with the fact that women are more comfortable discussing feelings,” Gutkind explained. “Guys like to discuss hockey.”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or

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