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Mentally ill still struggle with others misunderstanding and fear

A favorite book I read the first time many years ago is titled "The Peaceable Kingdom." It chronicles the formation and early years of the religion called The Society of Friends, known popularly as Quakers. Set during the mid-1600s, the book describes almost too graphically the treatment of people with mental illnesses.

They were treated the same as criminals and incarcerated in the worst parts of the worst jails because they had no money to bribe the jailers. There were no medicines to help them cope with their illnesses; in fact, doctors 300 years ago believed along with everyone else that the mentally ill were possessed by Satan or were being punished for their sins.There was a widespread belief that people with mental illnesses were to blame for their problems and deserved punishment. Seems archaic, doesn't it?

Or does it?

Today there is a variety of treatments to help people cope with mental illness. We understand the differences between depression and schizophrenia and other problems. There are programs to help victims learn to manage their disease and live productive lives. But there are two symptoms of mental illness that stubbornly refuse to be eliminated: misunderstanding and fear.

They're difficult to treat because they don't show up in victims of mental illness themselves but in all those who have so far avoided the diseases. The rest of us.

Just when we think we've advanced past letting misunderstanding and fear of the mentally ill color our actions, there's evidence that the two-headed monster is alive and well and living right here in Utah.

Shades of the 17th century.

Every two years, the Valley Mental Health adult treatment program sponsors a prom for victims of severe mental illness. It's a novel idea, considering that most of the patients are past the normal age for attending high school dances. But when you understand that mental illness often strikes people in their youth, the ideas makes sense: Why not give these struggling people a chance to enjoy an activity that their illness kept them from having in the normal season?

The event is supported by the community -- at least it has been until this year. Sheryl Salmon, program manager, says her department began calling businesses and public figures about donating services and being involved in the prom before two tragic shootings happened in Salt Lake City involving mentally ill people. After killings at the Triad Center and the Family History Museum, Salmon says, offers of support for the prom dropped by two-thirds.

"People said `this is not the year for it,' " Salmon said. She said nobody admitted they were reluctant to participate because of the stigma, but "it was pretty evident."

It's a monumental leap to associate the folks in the Valley Mental Health treatment center with the shooters who caused grief and pain to their victims and families. It's both a failure to recognize that there are individuals in any group who have the potential for violence and a tragic tendency to blame the entire group for the actions of those individuals.

Worse, it's evidence of misunderstanding and fear -- two emotions that not only lead to discrimination against individuals but can actually discourage people from getting the help they need to control the disease. Mental illness can make some people more prone to violence, but medicines and treatment can prevent this. Sadly, the stigma associated with mental illness can actually keep people from getting the proper help.

We know enough to understand that the mentally ill need treatment, not isolation or punishment. We know that on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level we sometimes slip back centuries to a feeling that somehow mental illness is different from illnesses that originate in the lungs, the heart or the belly. Insurance companies are finally being forced to cover costs of treating mental illness the same as other illnesses. Discrimination in the work place has been outlawed.

But attitudes of people who are in the public eye must change, too. Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore, is actively promoting better understanding of mental illness. But here in Utah there remain people Salmon calls "politicians and other public figures" who have in the past attended and promoted the prom but who this year are putting distance between it and them. It's unfair and it shows we are still fighting that two-headed monster. The plagues of the past: misunderstanding and fear.

When Salmon talks about the patients she serves, it's with more than compassion and understanding. She believes they deserve our admiration, too.

"This kind of response means they're not recognizing the people behind the illness," Salmon said. "I've seen these people struggle on a daily basis with their illness, debilitating things like auditory hallucinations. And the side effects of the medications -- awful fatigue, depression, weight gain.

"And, despite all this, they make time to volunteer to help other people; they demonstrate unusual concern for their friends and families. They set goals for themselves -- to work at a job or learn a skill -- and it takes so much more effort for them to reach the goals, but they do it.

"These are people with real courage and integrity."

They deserve better.