“The last great stigma of the 20th century is the stigma of mental illness.” — Tipper Gore
Education is a key in breaking down the barrier caused by the stigma of mental illness, according to Susan Hudson, director of the Mental Health & Substance Abuse Division at the Grundy County Health Department.
“I think stigma is really caused by fear and... a lack of knowledge,” related Hudson, who chairs the Mental Health Advisory Board.
“It’s really interesting to think about where we have come in the whole concept from back (centuries ago)... when people were in asylums and were treated as if they were animals.”
People did not understand mental illness then, Hudson pointed out. The stigma, however, is still prevalent today. So, that’s where enlightenment through education is vital. She compares mental illness to diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, cancer, or “any number of medical problem (that) are somehow more acceptable.”
Why isn’t it “acceptable,” as other infirmities are?
“There is still that fear of people with mental illness” Hudson said.
“What are they going to do? One of the biggest problems that society has is the sense that people with mental illness are dangerous. It’s played up, of course, anytime somebody (with mental illness) does something that is very erratic or horrific. Then, the (revelation) is that, here is somebody who has some mental illness; and they were untreated or not taking their medication.”
Of course, those things can happen ... but Hudson believes that many mentally ill people are often more frightened themselves than they are frightening to others.
“They don’t have a good sense of self-esteem; they don’t have the confidence,” she observed. “They are used to being frowned on; they are used to being rejected.”
There are, of course, different levels of mental illness. ... For instance, a person may suffer from paranoia ... the thinking that “people are out to get me; they are going to hurt me.”
“Not everyone’s mental illness is to that extreme,” Hudson reflected. “They may have depression; just feel glum and down ... ‘I just can’t manage things.’ It’s more than having a bad day. It’s kind of a chronic thing. Or, anxiety.
“They might be more frightened by society and other people than (the idea) they oppose a threat to others. In our society, I’m afraid that is not understood.”
What can be done
As already noted, education is instrumental in erasing stigma. Newspaper articles and radio interviews are among the vehicles conveying the message. In one radio interview, Hudson recalled, she explained how mental illness is a disorder in brain chemistry and that medication may help as it does with other illnesses.
“The brain can get sick just like the body can get sick,” she said. “Sometimes people think that, ‘There is something you (the mentally ill person) can do about this. Just quit feeling sorry for yourself. Or, just straighten up. Start acting normal.’”
It is not that simple, and Hudson observes it would be nice to be able to trade places to get a real feel of what it is like.
“If there was someway we could walk in another person’s shoes for a day. ... See what it is like to be a person with mental illness,” she said.
Of course, those family members who actually live with a mentally ill person are able to receive a valuable education.
One predicament, however, that can develop is if a person does not wish to be treated for the illness.
“People have the right to be sick ... but at the same time, it creates a real dilemma. ... Sometimes they really need treatment; they need medication. But, if they say ‘I don’t want it. I don’t need it.’ Then they’re in a position where they are not going to be able to control their symptoms very well. ... They don’t recognize that until maybe things get real bad,” Hudson said.
Part of the learning process is the realization that words can hurt, as well how mentally ill people are portrayed in many — though not all — movies. A couple of movies noted to have good depictions include “A Beautiful Mind” and “Rain Man”.
“Movies like that can be very helpful, and, of course, there are some ... that create more stigma,” Hudson explained.
In addition, the terminology used throughout society to describe a mentally ill person can have a negative effect.
“People will throw words around that are very hurtful and derogatory ... they really don’t know the meaning of it,” she said.
Grundy County merged with Will County to form the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Grundy County previously had its own affiliate, but that dissolved at the end of 2011 before joining forces with Will. The central office for the local affiliate is located in Joliet. The president of the Will-Grundy NAMI is Carrie Worthington, who explained that the national organization was formed over 30 years ago.
“It is a grass roots organization that helps to educate, fight stigma, support those with mental illness and advocate for their rights,” Worthington said.
Along with a national headquarters (Arlington, Va.), there are state organizations and local affiliates throughout the nation.
“Our mission statement for NAMI Will-Grundy is to support individuals with mental illness and their families through advocacy, education and outreach,” said Worthington, who was recently presented an award for “Outstanding Individual in Human Services for 2011” (given by the Community Services Council of Will County).
Worthington agrees there is still much to be learned about the treatment for mental illness, though it has come a long way.
“These illnesses are very treatable; and with the proper care and medication, most people can lead a very full and productive life,” she noted.
“Unfortunately — not being treated as an illness like any other — the resources and research are so very behind, (that) there are a lot of people who, unfortunately, do not get the care they need because of the stigma, lack of resources, services, etc.,” she added. “One in every four people are affected by mental illness. It is so widespread.”
As a result, many are left out of insurance plans, government services and the research dollars, she pointed out.
“Every day, people affected by mental disorders are fighting for their rights, for the proper care and the proper recognition that — yes — mental illness is a disease like any physical disease out there,” Worthington said.
So, the battle against the stigma continues.
“The stigma prevents individuals and their families to reach out and get the care that they need,” Worthington observed. “Fortunately, the more that it is talked about, the more that is learned and the less ‘shameful’ it becomes. Once mental illness is treated as a ‘real’ illness, more people should have better access to treatment, as well as insurance coverage and research dollars to find not only better treatment options — but also cures for these brain disorders.”
NAMI features monthly support groups for both Grundy and Will County. Locally, there is a family support group that meets on the second Tuesday of the month from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Morris Hospital in the FBS (Family Birthing Suite). That support group is for the family members of those dealing with mental illness, such as parents, siblings, husbands and wives.
Will County, meanwhile, has two monthly support groups at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Joliet. One is for family members and the other is for consumers (those with mental illness or are in recovery). They meet on the third Sundays of the month from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Both Hudson and Worthington noted that Grundy County may get a consumer support group in the future as well.
Hudson, along with her other duties, serves on the Advisory Board of the Will-Grundy affiliate.
“NAMI is a wonderful organization,” Hudson said. “What a reputation it has on behalf of people with mental illness. ... They have done tremendous work.”
She explained that Grundy County merged with Will County because it had become difficult to meet the requirements of being a NAMI affiliate. She knew of the great work being done in Will County, and the decision was made to merge.
“One of the biggest things that NAMI does is provide support to families. ... Here’s the people with mental illness, but then there’s the family,” Hudson said. “The family is broken-hearted, troubled, frustrated, lost. ... They don’t know what to do to help the family member with their mental illness.”
Sometimes, it may get to the point where the mentally ill person gets involved in a criminal activity. Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, do not want to see anyone get hurt ... they are concerned with security and safety.
“One of the things, in our community, we have been thinking about,” Hudson stated, “is how can we better help with law enforcement officers, or first responders, understand how to deal with someone with mental illness?”
Hudson noted that NAMI in Will County has been sponsoring a program called Mental Health First Aid Training, which has a goal of providing knowledge to professionals on mental health.
“So when they are dealing with people with mental illness, they have a much better understanding,” Hudson said. “That’s part of the education.”
Hudson is very impressed with other programs offered in Will County by NAMI as well. Among the programs offered there are Family to Family, Hearts and Minds, WRAP and In Our Own Voice.
“Family to Family is a 12-week class for family members of those who have mental illness,” Worthington informed. “We offer this course in spring and fall. Hearts and Minds is a class for clients to teach them to take care of themselves physically as well as mentally. It is a six-week class. We offer that program in the spring. In the fall we offer WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan) study group. This is also a six-week group and is a explores ways to assist in recovery.
“In Our Own Voice is a presentation by clients in recovery and it is usually presented in the hospital to patients and their families that are being ready for discharge. We should be starting this up soon at Silver Cross. We also use this presentation for our speakers bureau when we have presentations to civil groups.”
As part of the Mental Health Advisory Board, Hudson pointed out that volunteer help would be appreciated.
“We seek participation from community members to represent the needs of the community regarding these (mental health) issues,” she explained.
Someone, including one who may have experienced mental illness, may render advice on how to address problems in the community. Those interested may contact Hudson at her email address of firstname.lastname@example.org or call (815) 941-3140.
Worthington, as well, noted volunteer help would be welcome as well.
“Yes, we are always looking for volunteers ... to serve on planning committees, to lead support groups and to teach,” she said. “They can email email@example.com for more information.”
Tinley Park Mental Health Factility is slated to close in July with a goal of saving the state money.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, it costs approximately $20.6 million per year to run the facility. The state contends, however, that many of the patients — possibly half — “don’t really need to be hospitalized if they had adequate services in the community... to get them the support they need, the medication they need, that kind of thing,” Hudson related.
Hudson said the state plans on putting $9.8 million back into the Region 1 area, which includes the southside of Chicago, the southern suburbs (which include Tinley Park), and the counties of Kankakee, Will and Grundy. One of possibilities is having a special unit at Morris Hospital near the emergency room for psychiatric patients entering. Hudson observed that Ginny Kelly (Vice President of Development at Morris Hospital) noted the big problem locally, and the community needs to do something.
An idea that Hudson presented is a short term unit for people who do not need to be admitted to the hospital, “but they’re not really safe or stable enough to be back home. So, if we had a short term observation (place) they could come ... they would have a place to stay; they would have a social worker to work with. They would have a case manager to help them to link up. ... So many people are losing their jobs; there is no income; they lost their insurance; they are losing their homes; their families. They don’t know how to pay their rent.”
Hudson realizes there is much work to be done.
“We would like to enhance the services we are already providing with our Mental Health and Substance Abuse Division,” she said.
A psychiatrist comes to a local office and works with patients for 25 to 30 hours per month — averaging about five hours per week. Currently, there are approximately 90 patients. With all of the work that is required ... with patients being discharged from hospitals and sent there ... Hudson notes that more help is needed.
“We need more psychiatric care; we need more money for medications,” she said.
Also, as Hudson and Worthington — along with Tipper Gore and many others — have pointed out, a need to stamp out the stigma of mental illness.