Mental health awareness

By Sam Shawver

The Marietta Times

sshawver@mariettatimes.com

In an effort to help eliminate discrimination against people living with mental illness, Ohio’s branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI Ohio) brought its NAMImobile to Marietta Monday as part of a statewide tour to raise awareness about the issue.

“We have millions in this country marching for issues like AIDS and cancer awareness, but only hundreds are speaking out about mental illness,” said David Browne, executive director of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board.

“Mental illness is a real disease,” he said. “No one asks for this, but there’s still a stigma placed on the mentally ill.”

Miriam Keith, the Washington County Behavioral Health Board’s consumer support coordinator, added that stigma creates problems for those who need help.

“People with mental illness may not seek help because there’s a stigma associated with it,” she said. “Studies indicate about one in three people affected actually seek help, and in children the ratio is about one in 10.”

Getting the word out to de-stigmatize mental illness is important, but funding to help those most in need of mental health services is also limited.

“In the last 10 years we’ve lost about 75 percent of the funding over which we have control for local services. So we do whatever we can to save money which allows us to help treat people more efficiently,” Keith said.

She noted one way the board saves funding is to pay members of the Marietta Police Department to have clients transported to treatment facilities instead of contracting with a transportation service.

“Officers mostly transport them to the Athens Behavioral Hospital, but also take people to Chillicothe, Belmont County, and Zanesville,” said Marietta Police Chief Brett McKitrick.

Dell Nicholas, president of the county behavioral health board and president of the Washington County NAMI branch, said mental illness is often viewed in relation to drug or alcohol abuse.

“But many people who become addicted to drugs or alcohol may start out using those substances to try and ‘medicate’ themselves for a mental illness,” she said. “And because of the stigma against it, people may live with a mental illness for a long time before seeking help.”

Nicholas said her son, who recently spoke during a recent state mental health recovery summit, was among those who delayed treatment.

“He said he had suffered for years and as a young man he had what he called ‘dark days’ but never told anyone,” she said. “He served in the U.S. Navy and went on to have a good career, but then things started falling apart in his life. He used up all of his sick leave and vacation until his company finally called him and he began to look for help.”

Nicholas said her son was in his 30s at that time, and is now in his 50s, living a normal life and doing much better.

“People with mental illness are often shunned, but it’s just like any other disease except it affects the brain,” she said, noting that just within the last couple of years the federal government has required insurance companies to cover treatment for mental illness in the same way they cover other physical illnesses.

“Brain disorders, like heart disease and diabetes, are legitimate medical illnesses,” Browne said. “Research has shown there are genetic and biological causes for psychiatric disorders, and they can be treated effectively. A serious mental illness cannot be willed away, and ignoring it will only make things worse. But it takes courage to seek professional help.”

He said local communities must respond to mental illness by treating those who have brain disorders with the same respect and well wishes they would show to anyone fighting a disease.

Nicholas said anyone looking for more information about joining a support group or about other available services can contact NAMI Washington County at 373-8000.

NAMI Ohio is the statewide alliance that serves as the voice for mental illness. The organization is comprised of thousands of family members, individuals, advocates and professionals working together to ensure Ohioans with mental illness and their families receive the treatment and support they need.