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May is Mental Health Awareness Month

In this age of enlightenment, why is there a need for a mental health awareness month at all? Because in spite of the many strides made in treatment options for the mentally ill, misunderstanding and myth still persist about the malady: the mentally ill are incapable, violent, lazy, and simply beyond help. While news coverage of school shootings and fanciful legal defenses have an unfortunate sensationalist agenda, the mentally ill are not more prone to violence than the average citizen. In fact, some of the most violent people in history – just look at Joseph Stalin or Ted Bundy – have been stone cold sane.

The mentally ill – with proper treatment – do hold down jobs and perform excellently. These career paths include anything from bag boy at the supermarket to presidents of nations. Abraham Lincoln suffered from severe bouts of depression -- and to successfully navigate this country through her most divisive war at the same time is no mean feat.  Winston Churchill struggled with his own “black dog” while inspiring Great Britain as Nazi bombs fell.

But sadly, the sufferers themselves often buy into mental illness myth. “I must be a weak or defective person,” the sufferer will unreasonably reason. And family members will often well-intentionally suggest "toughing it out." But “toughing out” a genuine mental disorder makes about as much sense as “toughing out” cancer or diabetes. It will not simply go away on its own. It is well known that painter Vincent Van Gogh and novelist Ernest Hemingway both took their own lives due to mental illness.

Rural areas such as west central Minnesota present special challenges to addressing this disorder. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), rural America accounts for about 90 percent of the landmass of the United States and is home to about 25 percent of the U.S. population, but “rural issues are misunderstood, minimized, and not considered in forming national mental health policy.”

Additionally, the stigma attached to mental illness can be especially intense in rural communities because anonymity can be difficult to maintain and it can be difficult to access care.

It cannot be emphasized enough that no one is ever “beyond help.” A compassionate person can do much to help a suffering friend. Again, according to SAMHSA, one may help by:

• Avoiding labeling people with words like "crazy," "wacko," "loon.” Instead of saying someone is a "schizophrenic" say "a person with schizophrenia."

• Learning the facts about mental health and sharing them with others, especially if hearing something untrue.

• Treating people with mental illnesses with respect and dignity, as one would anybody else.

• Respecting the rights of people with mental illnesses and not discriminating against them when it comes to housing, employment, or education. Like other people with disabilities, people with mental health needs are protected under federal and state laws

On a personal level, it is insulting and degrading to hear Fergus Falls State Hospital referred to "the nut hutch"!

There is now solid evidence that mental illness does not stem from simply from a lack of internal fortitude.  The culprit may be, according to Dr. Jordan Smoller of Massachusetts General Hospital, four specific chromosomes that control the amount of calcium in cells which disrupt neurons, leading to increases in bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, and major depression.

A true friend will act with compassion. "Some people suffer debilitating mental illness for decades without ever really having a breakthrough," said David Blistein, author of David's Inferno: My Journey through the Dark Wood of Depression (in an interview with Brendan McLean, National Association of Mental Illness communications coordinator). "That doesn’t mean they failed in some way. They’re just on a different journey."

Some resources for both sufferers and supporters:

The Local Advisory Committee on Mental Heath for Stevens County meets the second Thursday of every month in the multipurpose room at the Stevens Community Medical Center. It is open to the public and welcomes new members

The Stevens County Mental Health Drop-In Center – located at 15 E. 2nd St. – provides a supportive environment of kindred spirits as well as a resource for finding service providers.

Also contact any of the following agencies:

• Stevens County Human Services Department: 320-208-6600

• Swift County Human Services: 320-843-3160

• Traverse County Social Services: 320-563-8255

• Big Stone County Family Services: 320-839-2555

• Grant County Social Service Department: 218-685-8200

• Pope County Family Service Department: 320-634-5750

• Mental Health Association of Minnesota: 651-493-6634 or 800-862-1799, and

• NAMI West Central MN: 218-346-7944 or