Mental illness is common, affecting tens of millions of people in the U.S. Yet only half may be receiving treatment. Why so few?

Many fear stigma and delay seeking care, and as a result, they end up enduring protracted periods of preventable suffering. For nearly three of four patients, there’s a double whammy: the need to cope not only with illness-related disability, but also with stigma-related prejudice and discrimination.

For many, this combination puts basic life goals in severe jeopardy. In 1990, the National Alliance on Mental Illness successfully lobbied Congress to proclaim the first week of October as “Mental Illness Awareness Week.” During this week, mental health advocates work to educate the public and to reinforce their campaigns to combat stigma.

In Pinehurst, on Saturday, Oct. 11, two organizations collaborated and went “Green” to commemorate this week: NAMI-Moore County; led by president Judith Krall, vice president Donna Kester and secretary Barb Mellinger; who teamed up with the Kingdom Minded Ministries International (Pinehurst) led by Pastor Charles Bloom and volunteer counselor Bob Huber (who had six other family-members present).

Together, the leadership of each organization planned and led an Interfaith Worship Gathering with the keynote speaker being Sarah G. Weathersby, who spoke on the subject of “No Blame, No Shame: Fight the Stigma.”

Other leaders in this gathering included the Rev. Dr. Bob Whitehouse, family therapist Andrew Barber; Chaplain Dr. Jeannette Jones, and the Linden Lodge Ensemble.

In addition to wearing green ribbons prepared by Beth Ann Mellinger that symbolized “Going Green,” the worship gathering had its own symbolism, one example being “the Laying Down of the Burdens of Mental Illness.” Each attendee brought a small stone to the dais and deposited it in a pool of water.

Ms. Weathersby, an author and mental health advocate, gave a moving testimony as she recounted the emotional trauma that she and her son experienced incidental to the onset of his paranoid schizophrenia.

In speaking of her experience, at times with difficulty, she set an example for the congregants as to how it’s possible to care for a family member with a serious, stigmatizing illness, and to avoid the self–reproach that develops when prejudice prevails over objectivity.

“No blame; it’s an illness of the brain,” Ms. Weathersby said.

She also pointed to cancer as a stigmatizing disease of the past. Cancer once carried its own stigma, and like stigma in general, it had its own vicious cycle: Stigma breeds silence, and then this silence fuels fear, and fear once again breeds more silence. On and on it goes in a self-perpetuating cycle of prejudice — leading to stereotyping and then to its sequel, discrimination.

However, what advocates for cancer patients did was to wage a war against stigma. They educated. They lobbied. They raised money. They called for research. They insisted on insurance coverage. In short, they effectively exposed stigma as prejudice, and they did so by confronting it, year after year, in countless ways and in countless places.

Can’t the same outcome be achieved for mental illness, even if it is an illness of the brain?

The significance of Ms. Weathersby’s story is that it reminded me — and others like me — that telling our stories can inspire others.

“The mentally ill frighten and embarrass us,” said actress Glenn Close, who has a sister with a serious mental illness. “And so we marginalize the people who most need our acceptance. What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor and more unashamed conversation.”

President Bill Clinton put it this way: “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.”

The 1950s brought with them the first anti-psychotic drug, chlorpromazine, and the first anti-depressant, imipramine. Now, six decades later, advances have included knowledge about: the genetics of schizophrenia; biomarkers for mental illnesses; the pending arrival of better drugs from the pipeline; and the “Human Connectome Project,” a massive, incredibly ambitious undertaking aimed at mapping the function of the trillions of connections that exist among human brain’s 100 billion neurons.

Today’s groundbreaking research, advances in medical treatments and the continuing campaign against stigma promise to relegate it to its rightful position — to a bygone era of the past.

Edward N. Squire, Jr., Special to The Pilot | Posted 16 October 2014 

Edward N. Squire Jr. is a retired physician living in Seven Lakes.

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