Mental Health Dollars at Work

I had an exciting opportunity on June 14 to promote my book, The Secrets They Kept, while at the same time talk about new legislation that will expand treatment options for the mentally ill in my home state. As many of you know, in the last decade funds for these much needed services have been slashed throughout the country, including here in Colorado.

In the aftermath of the mass murder that took place last August (2012) at an Aurora, Colorado movie theatre, our governor, John Hickenlooper, along with many others, demanded Colorado address the serious issue of treating the mentally ill. As a result of these efforts, a bill, with a budget of $20 million dollars, was signed into law on May 16 that will provide walk-in crisis centers, a 24-hour hotline, and mobile treatment units in the rural areas of our state.

I spoke about this bill, along with the need to recognize the seriousness of mental illness in our country, on local radio stations KNUS am 710, KRKS am 990, and KRKS 94.7 FM. That interview will be aired on Saturday, June 22 from 9-9:30 a.m. MST. The program is called “Colorado Issues.”

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Mental Health Month

The month of May ushers in the promise of warmer weather and a renewed sense of hope for the future. This spring, as we anticipate the sunny days and balmy evenings of summer that lie ahead, I urge Americans to pause for a moment and focus attention on the millions of individuals who struggle with the hopelessness, pain, and isolation of mental illness. Every May for the past 11 years, as part of “Mental Health Month,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a grassroots, nonprofit organization, has been instrumental in promoting public awareness about mental illness, and the stigma that continues to plague those who suffer in its devastating grip.

The statistics on mental illness are both heartbreaking and alarming. The tragic events of Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; and Newtown, Connecticut should compel us to take notice of these illnesses which, in many cases, we prefer to ignore-until it is too late.

According to NAMI:

  • One in four adults, approximately 61.5 million Americans, experience mental illness in a given year.
  • One in 17, about 13.6 million, live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.
  • Approximately 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year. For ages 8 to 15, the estimate is 13 percent.

Mental illness, and how to best recognize and treat it, is very much in the news these days. Unfortunately, stories reported by the media are frequently sensational in nature, and do not address the advances that have been made in this particular area of health care. Yet, now more than at any other time in history, progress is being made, and people being treated for mental illness, in all its many forms and manifestations, are capable of leading more productive lives.

This May, in cities across our land, as well as in other months throughout the year, advocacy groups such as NAMI will sponsor fundraising walks. These events offer Americans an opportunity to educate themselves on an important health issue that impacts us all.

I intend to participate in the NAMI Walk on May 18, 2013, at Stapleton Park, in Denver, Colorado, and I encourage you to do the same in a city near you. For more information, or to make to a pledge, please contact one of the organizations listed below.

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Secrets and Shame

On a recent CBS Evening News broadcast, it was announced that over 500 pages of formally classified information relating to Jared Lee Lougner, the 22-year-old schizophrenic who gravely injured Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and killed or wounded 19 others, are now available for public consumption. According to these files, Jared Lougner’s parents were aware of their son’s increasingly odd behavior. I can’t help but wonder: if his parents had insisted on a mental health evaluation for their son, would his eventual actions been thwarted?

One could well ask the exact same question to the parents of James Holmes, the Colorado graduate student who, months after moving to the Mile-High City suburb of Aurora, CO, carefully devised a systematic plan to destroy as many lives as possible in his midnight-movie rampage last summer. Did his parents, or other family members, not realize that this obviously brilliant young man was also deeply troubled?

And what are we to make of Adam Lanza? Surely his mother must have known her son was mentally disturbed. After all, at the time of his unspeakable crimes, she lived alone with him in their Newtown, Connecticut home, and presumably knew him better than anyone else. The troubling issue of why she encouraged her son’s love affair with guns and violence is a question that will never be answered to anyone’s satisfaction, especially not the families of those gunned down by Lanza with merciless abandon last December. My question is a simple one: What role, if any, did secret-keeping play in all three of these terrible tragedies?

At the time of my grandfather’s crime in 1937, and, in fact, ever since mankind first recorded the behaviors of the deranged among them, having a mentally ill family member often evoked feelings of shame. This in turn, drove many people to keep their loved one’s condition a secret, hidden behind closed doors for as long as possible. Why? Because unlike cancer, or almost any other disease, mental illness often carries with it a unique stigma: shame. Whether the diagnosis is schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, or major depression, the public rarely sees these illnesses in a compassionate light. Are we, the “normal” people in society, justified in our perception that all who suffer from mental illness are a violent and dangerous element to be avoided at all costs? According to an article in Scientific American (July 8, 2011), “Surveys show that 60 to 80 percent of the public believes that those diagnosed with schizophrenia, in particular, are likely to commit violent acts.”  The article continues by saying that while  “… studies have pointed to a slight increase in the risk of violent behaviors among those afflicted with major psychiatric ailments, a closer examination of the research suggests that these disorders are not strong predictors of aggressive behavior. In reality, severely mentally ill people account for only 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes in the general population.”

Unfortunately, as the press continues to report, in minute and gory detail, each horrific tale of murder and mayhem by a mentally ill individual, the perceptions about a strong link between violence and the mentally ill will persist. I say rather than blaming the parents, or other family members as many have done in the cases mentioned above, we consider eradicating the stigma attached to mental illness through education. Perhaps then families such as mine would not feel compelled to close ranks and keep secret the truth about their disturbed child, spouse, or sibling.

Think about it.

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What would you do?

Now that The Secrets They Kept: The True Story of a Mercy Killing That Shocked a Town and Shamed a Family has officially launched on both the Amazon and the Barnes & Noble websites, many readers are sharing their thoughts about a wide range of topics related to the contents of the book.

In response to comments regarding the highly controversial nature of my story, I have come to the conclusion that there is but one simple question I would ask every reader to consider: What, if you were the parents of a seriously mentally ill child, would you do in a  situation such as the one my grandfather faced? Certainly, in today’s world, most parents would first locate an experienced psychiatrist or other mental health professional for a proper evaluation of their child’s condition; next, they would ensure, to the best of their ability, that their child was taking the proper type and dosage of psychotherapeutic medication; and then, hopefully, these same parents would seek emotional support and educational resources for themselves and other family members as they embark on the long and difficult roller-coaster ride through a major mental illness that is, in some cases, incurable. Bottom line: As a nation, we have come a long way in our treatment of the mentally ill. Not the entire distance, of course, but a very long way. However, keep in mind that in this book we are talking about an immigrant father in the year 1937; a desperate man who has just been told he must commit his child to an insane asylum-possibly for life. He did not have the options that parents of severely mentally ill children have in America today.

When my grandfather received the devastating news that his youngest daughter, 16-year old Sally, had been diagnosed with dementia praecox (schizophrenia), and posed a danger to herself and to others, the moral dilemma he faced was unfathomable. As an orthodox Jew, my grandfather surely understood he was in religious, if not legal, violation of every law imaginable. Yet, he made a momentous judgment call that turned his family’s life upside down and thrust them, and himself, into a quagmire of shame and regret.

Locating details of an event that happened over seven decades ago was extremely challenging, and would have been impossible without guidance from of one particular volunteer researcher at the Wyoming State Archives. Because of his efforts, I found myself sitting in a small room at the Denver Federal Records Center, my heart pounding wildly in anticipation of what was about to be revealed. I will never forget the look on the staff person’s face when she handed me the innocuous-looking box which I knew held crucial information about my family’s secret past. With my trembling hand poised on the lid, I waited for her to leave me to my private moment of discovery, As she did, I couldn’t help but notice the touch of sadness in her voice when she said: “I think this is one of the most incredibly tragic stories I have ever read.”

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