Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Understanding Mental Illness: Critical to the Educational Environment

Due to the recent Virginia Tech University tragedy, the issue of mental illness has resurfaced and, in the coming months, will once again be afforded public attention and debate.

Security and safety at educational facilities requires the collaboration of numerous disciplines and mental health professionals must be involved with this process.

The following "News Note" from The Christophers website provides a brief overview of understanding mental illness.

[Reprinted from The Christophers Website –]

Understanding Mental Illness

"I could not travel… because all my silent thoughts
were somehow being picked up and read." – Glenn

"I can't sit; I need to stand, to walk, to move around;
I have this energy; I'm into movement…
moving, like I could go on forever." – Daryl

"I am now the most miserable man living…
I must die or be better." – Abraham Lincoln

These quotes illustrate schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major clinical depression. And they capture a bit of what a person with such a severe mental illness might feel.

Mental illness is not rare. It is not just something that happens to other families, in other neighborhoods. "One in four American families are affected by mental illness, and it's time we talked about it," observes Dr. Loraine Stern.

There is a great range in the type and severity of mental problems. Often people with mental illness can function and make valuable contributions. President Abraham Lincoln struggled with depression, yet is esteemed as one of the great U.S. presidents. But patients and their families must cope with disturbing symptoms as they seek healing and a normal life. All of us are responsible for treating every person, without exception, with respect and compassion.

Love your neighbor as yourself.
James 2:8
What is mental illness?

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill defines mental illness as "a group of disorders causing severe disturbances in thinking, feeling, and relating" which diminish one's ability to cope with normal demands. Common mental and emotional difficulties include anxiety disorders, substance abuse, Alzheimer's disease, and phobias.

Personal problems, such as grief over the death of a loved one or nervous "butterflies" before a public presentation, are normal. If symptoms interfere with an ability to be satisfied and effective at work or school and in personal relationships, it's a good idea to seek professional help.

Peace be to you; do not fear.
Judges 6:23
At home, in community

A loving atmosphere helps sufferers to cope with the sometimes terrifying world of mental illness.

Marjorie Manning Vaughan, a parish Eucharistic minister, has bipolar disorder and finds her colleagues' support invaluable. "For a mentally ill person, a church can either make or break them," she says. "I have been loved by almost everybody that I have come in contact with for any length of time."

In Salt of the Earth magazine, Thomas Lambert writes that without compassion hope and faith can shatter. "Persons with mental illness wonder if God loves them because they have been taught that…God's love for them is reflected by their faith community's care for them." Mentally ill people who are shunned "become victims of both the illness and of society."

Families can also feel overwhelmed, frustrated, angry and guilty. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill cites typical stressors: financial burdens, emotional upheaval, and practical problems of everyday living with a person who is ill and whose behavior is often difficult.

Concern from friends and neighbors, peer support groups and family counseling can help. Being there and listening, offering time out from everyday tensions can mean all the difference in tough circumstances.

Bear one another's burdens.
Galatians 6:2
Necessity for treatment

Untreated mental illness limits one's choices and chances. Sometimes people are ashamed, afraid, don't know the signs of mental illness, or are unaware of treatment options.

Seeking treatment can be an emotionally and financially sound decision. Studies have shown that individual and family therapy can save money by reducing the number of hospitalizations, decreasing worker absenteeism and increasing productivity.

Available treatments include medication and/or such therapies as behavior, cognitive, supportive, and insight-oriented psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis. Whatever the treatment, a good relationship between patient and professional is often key to success.

Care and compassion also make a difference.

Rejoice in hope.
Romans 12:12
Time to change attitudes

Today, people speak openly about facets of life once taboo. Yet, through fear and misunderstanding, mental illness retains a stigma.

Once people showing signs of mental illness were thought to be witches or possessed by evil spirits. Their often inexplicable behavior caused others to shun or isolate them.

Myths still exist and many people are uncomfortable with those whose behavior is different. Mentally ill people are sometimes accused of character flaws or weakness for not trying hard enough to "snap out of it." Most mentally ill persons are not violent.

We now know that the brain's malfunctioning biochemistry is often a major factor and that overwhelming stress, such as poverty, increases vulnerability.

"Education is still vital," says Michael Faenza of the National Mental Health Association. "Eradicating misunderstanding and stigma with… facts can really save lives."

As you have done, it shall be done to you.
Obadiah 15
A look at…schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a group of disorders marked by delusions, hallucinations and disorganized thinking.

Taken from the Greek meaning "splitting of the mind," connections between what's going on within the person and what's happening in the outside world seem to split apart. For instance, someone might laugh while describing a death in the family.

Schizophrenia usually first shows up in the teens, 20s or early 30s. Some, though not all, people speak, dress and behave in bizarre ways.

Dr. Frederick Frese, director of psychology at Western Reserve Psychiatric Hospital in Ohio, has a special perspective: "I am a person with schizophrenia. I am not currently psychotic, but I have been in the state of psychosis often enough to be somewhat familiar with the trips there and back. This disorder disrupts brain chemistry and fools you into believing that your thoughts are rational when other people can usually tell that they're not."

…bipolar disorder

"Manic-depression, a strongly genetic disease, pitches patients from depressed to hyperactive and euphoric, or intensely irritable," says Kay Redfield Jamison, psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Daryl Jacobson got the psychiatric help he needed at the urging of his wife. Daryl went from being easygoing to having hostile outbursts. He paced around at home and "talked a mile a minute."

Mania can be deceiving. A person may feel less need for sleep, feel productive and get lots of ideas. But the high doesn't last. A closer look at the ideas usually shows them to be unrealistic and grandiose.

…major clinical depression

Feeling "blue" or "down" occasionally is not a major clinical depression. Severe depression won't lift with advice to cheer up. Significant relief is often possible in a relatively short time with medication, psychotherapy or both.

Women are more likely than men to suffer major depression, according to Professor Sonia Austrian of Cornell University Medical School. While evidence is not conclusive, cultural factors seem more relevant than biology.

It's said that men find it hard to ask for help. For anyone who believes that it's admirable to be stoic, to never cry, to be self-sufficient and independent, realizing that it is appropriate to get help is a real eye-opener.

Symptoms of major depression include:

• persistent sad or "empty" mood • feeling helpless, worthless, pessimistic or guilty • substance abuse • fatigue or loss of interest in common activities, including sex • disturbances in eating and sleeping • irritability, crying, anxiety and panic attacks • difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions • thoughts, plans or attempts at suicide • persistent physical symptoms or pains that won't respond to treatment.

What mentally ill people need

Persons with mental illness need what everyone needs — loving friends, a caring community, rewarding work. They also need to have their illness acknowledged and addressed.

A person with schizophrenia writes: "My family and relatives have offered financial and emotional support… I have a wide circle of nurturing friends in church, E.A. (Emotions Anonymous), the civic theater, work, and college. This acceptance gives me courage and fulfills my life in a way no fantasy can. When my delusions threaten to turn to paranoia, I remember my friends and dare to trust, to reach out."

During active periods of illness, some people need psychiatric hospitalization with counseling and medication monitoring. But for most patients long-term hospitalization is a thing of the past. In general, persons with mental illness are fortunate if understanding loved ones keep daily routines as normal as possible.

Persons with mental illness are more isolated than others realize. Friends, neighbors, co-workers, fellow church members can help by visiting and including those with mental illness and their families in events and activities.

Agencies, such as COMPEER, match those with mental illness and trained volunteers. The two may go to movies, restaurants, etc. A therapist is available for guidance.

As one expert writes: "Concerned persons who offer human compassion and a sanctuary from a confusing world must be a cornerstone of any overall treatment plan."

In addition to understanding mental health issues for the purpose of preventing a crisis, it is important in the wake of a traumatic event that all individuals entrusted with the care of youth have a sense of how to deal with recovery. The United States Department of Health and Human Services – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers these tips:

Click here to read In the Wake of Trauma brochure


National Alliance on Mental Illness
Click here to visit site
NAMI – Virginia Tech Tragedy:
Responses & Resources
Click here to visit site
National Institute of Mental Health
Click here to visit site
Coping With Traumatic Events
Click here to visit site

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