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Breaking down stigmas

BY NICOLE LUMBRERAS | OCTOBER 05, 2009 7:20 AM

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Margalea Warner never thought she’d make it to celebrate her 50th birthday.

“I am a person living with a mental illness of schizophrenia,” she said. “I’m in recovery, I work full-time, and I have a cat named Taz.”

And she’ll turn 50 this weekend.

Warner spoke in front of a group at a candlelight vigil on Sunday about achievements throughout her life.

The vigil kicked off Mental Illness Awareness Week in Johnson County. And mental-health officials said they hope the week’s events will help educate people about mental illness.

Lance Clemsen, an associate clinic director in the psychiatry department of at the UI Hospitals and Clinics, compared mental illness and substance abuse to a broken arm — treatment should be sought for both.

“I look forward to the day when we deal with mental illness and chemical dependency the same we deal with the flu, bronchitis, or any number of common illnesses,” he said. “Then the question becomes ‘Why haven’t you gotten treatment?’ rather than ‘Should I get treatment?’ ”

Johnson County and National Alliance on Mental Illness joined forces for the third time to put on a week of events.

“It is important to our organization to raise mental-illness awareness,” said Nyle Jessen, the mental-illness group’s Johnson County co-president. “Stigma is the biggest barrier for people seeking treatment.”

After Jessen was diagnosed with depression, she began volunteering to help raise awareness about the disease.



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The National Alliance on Mental Illness is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Each state has an affiliated organization, with more than 1,100 local affiliates across the country. Events this week include a documentary video, guest speakers, and lectures.

Around 50 people attended the vigil on Sunday night. Johnson County residents came to remember those who have lost the battle with mental illness and to honor those who are continuing their recovery.

Bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” at the end to remember those who were lost. After listening to several speakers, those in attendance shared their stories and made new friends for future support.

Jessen and Clemsen both said they believe the public must be more open about mental illness and substance abuse. At one time, breast cancer was rarely discussed in public, but now the topic garners national attention; officials said they hope mental illness and substance abuse will eventually reach that point.

Mental illness and chemical dependency are more common than cancer and diabetes, and they affect approximately 4.5 million Americans, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.

However, only one-third of the people with symptoms seek treatment.

“There is still much to be done, but there is still hope,” Jessen said.

She added that people don’t know how to approach the topic. But health officials said with more education, more people will seek recovery as stigmas disappear.

“Like any disease, the earlier we can intervene, the better the outcome,” Clemsen said.


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