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Why education on mental illness is needed

Two recent MinnPost articles by Paul Scott in the Second Opinion blog questioned the need for a bill that would require the Minnesota Department of Education to recommend curricula that educate teenagers about mental illness.

Two recent MinnPost articles (here and here) by Paul Scott in the Second Opinion blog questioned the need for a bill that would require the Minnesota Department of Education to recommend curricula that educate teenagers about mental illness. There were insinuations that it’s simply a way to have more children diagnosed and medicated and that NAMI promotes medications because it is heavily funded by the pharmaceutical industry. 

First off, NAMI Minnesota’s funding from the pharmaceutical funding is way under 10 percent. Nearly 100 percent of our board and staff have a mental illness or have a family member with a member with a mental illness. Our experiences are what drive our work, not who funds us.

Stating that mental illnesses aren’t illnesses of the brain doesn’t change the reality that so many have to face. It’s easy to dismiss the effectiveness of medications that treat depression. But have you ever seen serious depression up close? A heavy wet wool blanket that slows every movement, every thought — that makes it nearly impossible to carry on with normal everyday activities?  Have you ever had to hold your teenager who felt so hopeless about the days ahead that she would attempt to take her own life? Have you watched her vomit up black charcoal along with all the pills she took?  Do you know how hard it is to say that your son lost his life to depression and to put that in his obituary?

It’s easy to dismiss mental illnesses until you see them up close. Have you ever watched helplessly as your daughter wastes away, becoming thinner every day while still thinking that she was overweight? Have you ever sat in the emergency room with your son as he cried telling you that it wasn’t him that was trying to hurt you but the voices that told him to do it?  Have you ever tried to control your racing thoughts so that you could stay on your job another day?

Little funding for research
It’s easy to talk about the influence of drug companies and others on the treatment of mental illnesses when you have not held someone who is struggling with mental illness in your arms, when you have not faced it yourself. Finding effective treatments is difficult, mainly because there has been so little funding for research. Therapy and medications are typically the answers — and for many they work. When you are able to function again or you are able to see your loved one climb out of illness into wellness, out of the symptoms of mental illnesses into recovery — then you believe in the effectiveness of treatment. 

It’s easy to dismiss the importance of raising awareness until you’ve faced the discrimination at every turn — your health insurance, your employment and even your friends and family who simply do not treat it as a real illness. It’s easy to dismiss mental illnesses as phony and not real until it has struck someone close to you. When people with mental illnesses come together in support groups or when families come together to learn about these illnesses you can see the effects of negative attitudes and the lack of awareness towards mental illnesses. The isolation and discrimination they face is real and when you find people who truly understand what you are going through it is life changing. 

Teens need to know that these are real illnesses
So, yes, we need to help teenagers understand that these are real illnesses. Chances are good that someone close to them — a parent, a sibling, a child, a cousin, a friend — even themselves — will be touched by this illness.

And once you try valiantly to find a treatment that works, services that will help, and emotional support from family and friends — only then will you understand the need to end the discrimination and prejudice that surrounds mental illnesses.

It may be an intellectual discussion for some, but for me and for so many other NAMI members and Minnesotans, this is a real-life situation in which there are few answers and where hope is often elusive.

Sue Abderholden, MPH, is the executive director of NAMI Minnesota.