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Maine Group Battles Stigma and Isolation of Mental Illness
10/03/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

For those living with chronic mental illness, there can be a tendency to hide from their communities. But many advocates say that talking about mental illness is the best way to build support, and break down stigmas. At a recent forum in Portland, a group called "It Takes A Community" offered a chance for people to share their stories.

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Maine Group Battles Stigma and Isolation of Mental
Originally Aired: 10/3/2012 5:30 PM

Creighton Taylor is playing a game of word association: Say the phrase "mental illness" and what words come to mind?
"Often the words are very brutal and harsh - you know, 'crazy,' 'stupid,' 'lazy' - things like that," Taylor says.

But then Taylor asks the crowd gathered at the Portland Public Library to think of words they associate with cancer.

Audience member: "Resilient."

"Often the words are 'courageous,' 'survivor,' 'victim,' 'compassion,'" Taylor says. "And yet they're both biologically-based illnesses, and the experience is so different for people with one or the other illness."

Taylor belongs to the group "It Takes a Community," which is on a mission to see that people with mental illness are treated with the same respect and understanding as those with physical illnesses. Taylor says that a member of her own family was diagnosed with mental illness seven years ago, and she was struck by the reaction.

"Here's a good example: When our loved one became ill, no one sent flowers or anything like that. We were really very isolated," she says. "And then fast forward a year when our golden retriever died. We got flowers, a book, cards, kids drew pictures. Somebody made a sculpture out of twigs and tennis balls. It's like, hey, if your dog dies, the world's at your door. But God forbid someone you love has a major mental illness. Then, you're on your own."

Of course, it's not just the family members who feel isolated - it's also the person who is living with the mental illness.

"My name is Dri Huber. I'm a member of the It Takes a Community Board." Huber is a junior at the University of Southern Maine. She has a mental illness that was discovered when she was 13, though she says she doesn't like to talk publicly about her diagnosis. She is willing to talk, however, about the stigma and sense of isolation, both before and after treatment.

"Once I was diagnosed with a mental illness people didn't necessarily trust me the same," Huber says. "But I was always the same person. I've always been really involved in school and done well. But as soon as I got this mental illness, people didn't believe I was capable of anything. They didn't trust me with myself."

Mental illnessAnother topic of discussion at the recent forum: Howmany people experience mental illness? One speaker pegged it at one in five.

"You would never know I'm mentally ill unless I choose to tell you," says Randy Seaver (right), a communications consultant who's been diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, and bouts of schizophrenia.

Seaver says he was first hospitalized two decades ago in college and was later hospitalized 20 times - until he finally faced his illness.

"Because I kept thinking that was an isolated incident. If I work harder, if I studied harder, if I had the right relationship, if I had the right job, if I had the right apartment, the right car, things would eventually work out," Seaver says. "They never did. The one constant was how my brain works. And until I realized that and started taking care of that, only then did my life start to make sense."

It's been 15 years since Seaver's last hospitalization. He says what separates those with mental illness who spiral downward and those who function is their ability to talk about it and reach out for resources. Creighton Taylor says one of those resources is family, which she says is often neglected by the system.

"One social worker summed it up this way: She said talking to families isn't a billable service," Taylor says. "So here we are, we are often the ones who take these very ill people home with no training and no support, and we don't know what we're doing. It's like, you wouldn't send someone home who had just had major heart surgery without a little sheet with some instructions."

Creighton says seven years after her family member was diagnosed, things are better than she ever would have imagined. But she says the goal of making society more aware and accepting of mental illness still hasn't been realized. She hopes to keep the conversation going, and offers simple encouragement: "Bring people casseroles. And just let them know you're thinking about them."

Photo by Patty Wight.


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