Officials see lack of understanding ahead of Mental Illness Awareness Week


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Phil Steffensmeier feels the most normal during the fall.

However, when winter and spring come around, times are a little more difficult for the 31-year-old because he was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder when he was 15 years old.  Life for him now is like a seasonal roller coaster.

“It’s been an interesting ride,” he said. “It’s been much more difficult in the past than it is now. I consider myself to be on remission or in recovery and not so much being directly affected by the illness.”

After dropping out of college because of his disorder, he used the resources provided by the University of Iowa’s National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter to speak out about mental illnesses.

“There’s an extreme lack of knowledge,” he said. “There are just too many people who think that if you have a mental illness that there’s a weakness or a personal deficiency, and that’s just simply not the case.”

The UI’s National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter held a candlelight vigil on Sunday in support of mental illness. People gathered in the Kautz Plaza of the T. Anne Cleary Walkway.

“[The candlelight vigil gives] an opportunity for people to share their stories about mental illness in the environment where they will not be judged and to take a moment of silence for anyone affected by mental illness,” said Tim Smith, the webmaster and secretary for the UI organization.

The vigil marked the beginning of Mental Illness Awareness Week, and officials say the stigma surrounding mental illness needs to be addressed.

“It’s an ongoing issue in our society,” Johnson County Supervisor Pat Harney said. “[People with mental-health issues] have been pushed aside or kicked out of the limelight.”

The National Institute of Mental Health reported one in four adults, approximately 57.7 million Americans, experience a mental health disorder in a year.

The alliance works to provide education, mental-health support, and advocacy on campus by participating in events and distributing information through its website and word of mouth.

“Our meetings are always open to anyone who would like to come and learn more,” said Ryan Bracken, the co-president of the local alliance chapter. “We try to keep our list of resources up-to-date [for] different places people can go to learn more about mental illness or find counseling services.”

In addition to the alliance, there are 1,100 affiliates across the country. 

Nyle Jessen, the former president of Johnson County’s alliance chapter, stresses the importance of being educated about mental health.

“People need to understand and be educated about [mental illnesses], so they will get treatment sooner rather than later,” she said.

Jessen said two-thirds of individuals with early symptoms of mental illnesses do not receive treatment.

“It’s really important [to get treatment], just like with any other disease,” she said. “Too many individuals don’t get treatment in a timely manner.”

Experts say the problem of not seeking early treatment is partly due to the stigma on mental illnesses.

“Folks need to understand [mental illness] is a disease, just like any other disease,” Jessen said.
Jessica Peckover, the coordinator of the Johnson County Jail Alternatives Program, agreed mental illness is misunderstood.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about mental-health needs and about what services are available,” she said. “When you say mental illness people, are going to think crazy, psychotic, schizophrenia, which is a very small percentage of the population. And many people don’t know how to respond.”

However, Jessen said she believes Johnson County has become more open-minded about mental illnesses.

“I think in our community, Johnson County, more people are aware of it,” she said. “But there are still a lot of individuals that don’t understand mental illness. It has become much more open, discussing it. It’s important to have a community dialogue.”

And Steffensmeier said he wants people to understand mental illnesses are just like any other diseases.

“It’s just an illness like any other illness; it deserves to be treated as such and respected as such,” he said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m just like you.”

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