Column/Speak up about mental health

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 12, 2007

Let’s talk about mental illness. Does that make you uncomfortable? The topic makes a lot of us squirm a little bit.

But when you watch someone you care about struggle with some type of mental illness, it can be gut-wrenching, frustrating and downright difficult just to help them function day to day.

I cannot imagine what it is like for the person who deals with depression or other mental illnesses.

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The subject comes up because I recently read a book called, “Honestly” by Sheila Walsh. It’s not a new book. In fact, it’s been out for several years. In the book, Walsh addresses her struggle with depression, which landed her in a psychiatric hospital when she was a co-host of the “700 Club,” a Christian talk show.

It took a bold step on her part to admit she needed help, especially given her message that faith can overcome any obstacle.

It was also an incredibly brave move to write a book describing her experiences.

In the book, she writes about the stigma associated with the illness. Those who don’t understand believe a person should be able to just pull themselves up out of their depression. For someone who is clinically depressed, that most likely won’t happen.

Medically, we’ve come a long way. I had a grandmother who suffered from a mental illness. Her brain was operated on in the 1960s. I don’t know what the goal was, but it didn’t work. She suffered with depression, and possibly other disorders for most of her adult life.

With modern pharmaceutical breakthroughs, however, she probably could be given a prescription that would have enabled her to live a fairly normal life.

While we’ve come a long way medically, there is still a social stigma faced by the mentally ill. We don’t really like to talk about it, and even less do we want to be around it.

Mental illnesses include such disorders as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic and other severe anxiety disorders, autism and pervasive developmental disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, borderline personality disorder, and other severe and persistent mental illnesses that affect the brain, according to the National Association of Mental Illnesses.

I was visiting a friend in a psychiatric ward of a hospital in Mobile. There was a young man in the ward, who was just being admitted. He looked to be in his late 20s or early 30s. He was non-communicative and carried around his few belongs, clutching them to his chest. The staff was having a difficult time helping him understand where he was and why he was there.

When I got on the elevator to leave, I was surprised to see a high school classmate. He had been there to help admit the young man, who was a former Army buddy. Obviously shaken, he said, “You wouldn’t know he was the same person. He’s one of the brightest, most caring people I’ve ever known.”

I visited my friend again a few days later and was relieved to see, that with treatment and medication, this young man seemed to be doing much better.

For the sake of those who suffer with mental illnesses, it’s important that we educate ourselves, and become more comfortable with the subject matter. Taking the barriers down can help them with their recovery.

Tammy Leytham is editor of The Selma Times-Journal.