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If you have cancer or are injured in a car wreck, chances are people you don't even know well will rally around you with acts of kindness and words of support.

Tell someone you have a mental illness, though, and the reaction is apt to be far different. Mental illness is not a "popular handicap," according to the Utah Alliance for the Mentally Ill, despite the fact that millions of Americans have mental illness.The label bestows a stigma on the people who have it.

This, despite the fact that there are more cases of mental illness than any other disease.

Illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (formerly called manic depression) and major depression are physical conditions that include neurological, biochemical and genetic functioning.

According to UAMI, chronic mental illnesses are characterized by confused thinking, delusions, hallucinations, mood disorders, inappropriate emotional responses, loss of motivation, lack of concentration, dwindling interest in life and deterioration in both social functioning and job performance.

With such a drastically reduced ability to function, imagine trying to get ready for the holidays. Especially since many adults with chronic mental illness have only the income provided by Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income. The payment, which averages $435 a month, puts the recipient far below the federal poverty guideline.

Even without a mental illness, holidays are hard on people who are lonely or in crisis. For those with chronic mental illnesses, "Christmastime becomes crisis time."

That's why UAMI, a nonprofit organization, several years ago organized the "Forgotten Patient Program," which provides Christmas presents for the children of people with mental disabilities and for children who are going to spend the holidays in the State Hospital, away from families and friends.

Many people with mental disabilities have family members who provide for them. The program picks up the slack for those who don't.

According to organizer Jan Harding, last year the program helped 563 needy children. Volunteers from the community provided a stocking, clothing, underclothing and a special gift.

Harding gets emotional when she shares the list of the children's needs and "wants." Forget Nintendo sets. These kids say they need underwear and want shoes, if you can imagine such a thing in a season of conspicuous consumption.

Johnny, who is 15 and large for his age, needs Levis and boots, which are too expensive because of his size. He wants a videotape.

Holly, 5, needs shoes and socks. She wants "any toy."

Brandon, 7, needs a coat. He wants gloves and a poster.

Jessica, 10, needs a coat and shoes. Under wants, "anything will be fine. Thanks."

A little boy and his sister want "soft pillows to sleep on." Or a Whitney Houston tape.

A 3-year-old blind girl would like a musical toy.

Most of the children also need basics like toothbrushes.

Staff at the State Hospital say they'll be happy to do the shopping for people who are too busy and would like to donate money instead.

They just don't want to see anyone go without a gift or two. These children, Harding says, have enough sorrow in their young lives.

To help, call Harding at 484-7845.