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Consider this quote from Abe Lincoln

"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves."



     For those of you close to me, you know that ideas for columns tend to pop into my head quite often. Sometimes I put them immediately to paper and other times they languish for years, never quite formed well enough for a complete thought. This is one of the latter columns, and one that I have meant to write for some time. To be quite honest I was embarrassed to write about it, and provided my own stigma to this subject only because I wanted to shelter the innocents. Unfortunately though, by doing so I have neglected the truth, and in the end all I have as my platform is the complete truth.

     There are two examples I would like to start with this week, both tragic in a way. The first is the movie Rain Man where a severely autistic man was institutionalized only to be later found by his brother. Although the reasons for Tom Cruise’s caricature in the movie for finding his brother weren’t quite as wholesome as it appeared the movie itself exposed a much larger problem. The other example was my Uncle Ora. He was a kind and gentle soul, who loved children and taking care of bunny rabbits. Institutionalized in Minnesota at a young age, he would spend the rest of his life in an institution or care facilities as he was labeled “slow”, “addled” and in one set of census records with the vulgar description of “idiot”. That young man who was institutionalized because he couldn’t keep up in school spent his entire life there, never knowing that had someone known he couldn’t see without glasses, that his life would have gone on it’s normal path much like yours and mine.

     For years we have dealt with individuals like this by locking them away. Away from the eyes of the public, out of sight out of mind, and away from anyone who would be stigmatized by the mental illnesses they struggled with. A recent study determined that twenty-six percent of American adults suffer from some sort of diagnosable mental illness in any give year. Twenty-six percent; that is nearly one in four Americans.

     Some may say that mental illnesses are “made up” diseases. Certainly we had names for the kids growing up who would now be labeled ADHD. We called them crazy kids, sent them to special classes where they were segregated from their peers and were teased for being “slow” or “dumb”. The truth of the matter is that all mental illness brings with it some sense of stigma, and it is that stigma that we need to break away at.

On a recent episode of Dr. Phil, he noted that the majority of OCD sufferers can find the root cause of their OCD in a traumatic experience from their past which now makes them need to keep their lives in such meticulous order. That need stems from their inability to control the traumatic situation and is now how they deal with that need for control.

     I have a family member who suffers with a horrible mental disorder known as schizophrenia. Approximately two million Americans also suffer with some form of this type of mental illness. Could you spot it if you saw him on the street? Probably not. Does it make him dangerous? Sometimes. Has it been a burden on him and his extended family over the years? Definitely. What you have to know about the disease is that it is caused by a number of different things. An injury, a traumatic situation or even hereditary genetics can lead to it.

    After just reading that paragraph, what were your first thoughts? Were you worried about your own safety? Did you automatically play off knowing that he had a disease simply by calling him “nuts” or “crazy”? Did you pass judgment on him because of the luck of the draw that afflicted him in this way? Did you even stop to think if it was treatable? Or maybe you wondered about the family members around him who have silently struggled with his disease over the years? It’s time to face some of those fears with facts.

     I’ve never been inside his head, but I know that at times, he hears voices and has trouble control his thoughts and his anger. Unlike the movies or the “after school specials” that you have possible seen, it isn’t a twenty-four seven issue. Certainly having the disease is, which keeps him from being able to keep a steady job, but the voices, the outbursts of anger and the irrational thoughts and actions aren’t ever day occurrences. In fact, if you met him on the street, you would simply find him a funny, caring, little rough around the edges, redneck whom cares a great deal about his family and the people around them.

     Do you need a tree cut up after a storm? He’ll be the first one to be there. Call him in the middle of the night and ask him to loan you a tool, or a gallon of gas, he will do so with a smile. Building a new fence, or a deck, or need something cleaned up and hauled away, and he will appear and work right beside you. He is a warm and friendly guy, who lives every day the best way he can, and yet understands that inside of him is this “other person” who keeps him from being well. He also understands what circumstances bring that “other person” out. It usually comes from high stress situations, which is quite normal from persons suffering with the diseases, because it intensifies the instance and also provides more chaos than the person is able to digest and deal with. When they reach that breaking point, it can only be described as a giant sugar rush that lasts only a few minutes or hours and then is followed by a debilitating crash, where the person feels fear and guilt for their out of control actions.

     As a sibling it has been a struggle for me as well. Ninety-Nine percent of the time I don’t even think of him as having a mental illness. However, I’ve been on the receiving end of one of his “explosions” and to be honest it scared me to death. You become accustomed over time to dealing with the disease, but still you feel shame, and sadness that someone you love struggles so. Sometimes you are angry that they can’t be alright, and at other times you feel guilt for knowing there is nothing you can do to make them better. What has made it harder for me, has been trying to remain quiet about my own struggles with depression most of my adult life, as I was embarrassed and terrified that I would take attention away from the family member I felt really needed more help than I did.

     We shouldn’t stigmatize anyone who suffers with a mental illness. Sure, there are times when it would be much easier to lock them away, and never to pay attention to them again, but in the end we would only be burying our own heads in the sand instead of paying attention to what was really important. The best way to go about dealing with it is to talk. Talk to the individual, he would be happy to tell you his story. Be comforting of his extended family in hard times, and above all be a friend and lend a hand when you can. In the end, it is what Jesus asked for us to do, loving thy neighbor and those less fortunate.

     We shouldn’t be ashamed to stand up and speak out against the stigma and the name calling, and the hushed gossip that causes mental illness to continue to be something not talked of, but silently put away in the corner. I’m one who suffers because of mental illness, not only my own, but that of a dear family member who is really a great guy. But both he and I are one, if you took the time to get to know, you would call a friend.

See you next week…remember, we’re all in this together.