Let’s talk about mental illness

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My father’s sister married a widower with two very small children to whom she devoted her life.

Phyllis was around 2 and Harold was 5 or 6 when the marriage occurred and they seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be well-adjusted, high-energy children.

I was much younger, so we didn’t play much together, and they lived a distance from us so we saw them infrequently. About the time Phyllis went through puberty, she began to exhibit concerning behavior. Her temper tantrums became legendary.

Always a good student, her grades plummeted. She broke off relations with all her friends and cried often. Oh, how that girl could cry. And for days on end she just wouldn’t speak.

My aunt would make excuses for her at first, but then became increasingly aware that Phyllis needed some help. Unfortunately, back then, mental illnesses were treated in a rather hit-and-miss fashion.

Phyllis was diagnosed schizophrenic by one doctor and manic depressive (bipolar in today’s lingo) by another. She became a guinea pig for treatments and experimental medications.

There’s a lot of talk today about mental health and I’m happy that the discussion is now part of public discourse.

Mainly, because Phyllis’ mental issues were exacerbated by the secrecy my aunt and uncle felt compelled to surround them with. It didn’t help that my grandmother (who some described as “looney”) was appalled and embarrassed.

Recently, Bonner General Health announced the arrival of a licensed psychologist to add another resource to our local psychiatrist, Terry Johnson, M.D. Joe Wassif, PhD brings fourteen years of experience in mental illnesses and along with Dr. Johnson and a robust chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) we are fortunate to have services not often found in cities our size.

One article I read recently stated that mental illness isn’t the problem in the U.S., but the low number of professionals in the field is.

This makes us doubly lucky that these two men, with an abundance of expertise, have joined the Bonner General Health team.

According to Mental Health America nearly one in five adults and 13 to 20 percent of children living in the U.S. will experience a “diagnosable mental health disorder in a given year.”

NAMI’s website says that “trying to tell the difference between what expected behaviors are and what might be the signs of a mental illness isn’t always easy. There’s no easy test that can let someone know if there is mental illness or if actions and thoughts might be typical behaviors of a person or the result of a physical illness.

“Symptoms in children may include changes in school performance; excessive worry or anxiety, for instance fighting to avoid bed or school; hyperactive behavior, frequent nightmares; frequent disobedience or aggression, and frequent temper tantrums,” NAMI says.

In adolescents and, of course, adults the symptoms might be feeling excessively sad; having difficulty concentrating; experiencing extreme mood changes or feeling irritable and angry. Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning; avoiding friends and social activities and difficulties understanding or relating to other people may occur.

Changes in sleeping and eating habits, sex drive and the inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality are symptoms. As are abusing drugs and alcohol and an intense fear of weight gain.

“Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing ‘aches and pains’)” may indicate mental illness NAMI says. “Knowing warning signs can help let you know if you need to speak to a professional. For many people, getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step in a treatment plan.”

MHA suggests starting with an appointment with your primary care physician to rule out any physical illnesses. Then I suggest you call Bonner General Health Psychiatric Clinic at 208-265-1090 to make an appointment.

Please note that if at any time you have thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or immediately go to the emergency department.

In memory of my cousin, and for the millions of Americans who today are struggling with mental illnesses, let’s keep this conversation going.

Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.

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