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Mental illness affecting many Utah families

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SALT LAKE CITY — Some people who struggle with mental illness are never diagnosed — others not until they are well into adulthood. But unlike those who face challenges with diabetes or even cancer, these people often feel isolated or want to hide because they fear they will be labeled.

Many people are facing their illnesses with courage. They are determined to live productive lives.

Prior to his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, at age 13, Zach Wittwer remembers not understanding what was going on in his mind.

"I didn't want to feel the way I felt anymore. I knew that wasn't who I was. I wasn't that angry of a person, that sad of a person," he said.

He has spent the past several years balancing doctor appointments and medications.

Now 21, Zach takes college courses online and has a job. He hopes to become a special education teacher.

"I think as soon as you're comfortable, just tell people. Don't be ashamed of the illness, because you wouldn't be ashamed if you had diabetes," he said.

Zach is the oldest of four children. His family was initially devastated but searched for help. His mother, Sherri Wittwer, is now the executive director of Utah's National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"We have an amazing family — where they're educated, they understand, and they really do support Zach," she said. "But that's not to say it hasn't been a difficult journey, and it continues to be for Zach every day."

Dr. Walt Brodis was a successful internal medicine specialist when at 40, he fell apart.

"I was suicidal for about five years, horribly suicidal for five years, pretty much couldn't be left alone," Brodis said. "So my wife didn't work. She had to be here with me."

With young children, their lives were turned upside down. But Donna Brodis stayed by her husband's side.

"I had faith he would be strong enough to pull through it because I knew that he had a good character and this was an illness like any other physical illness," Donna Brodis said. "The brain is an organ, and sometimes when your brain is sick, you don't always realize it, and you struggle through it, and you push through it."

After a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, medications and electroconvulsive therapy helped Walt Brodis conquer the severe depression and weight gain. He began looking for a creative outlet and returned to his high school love of painting.

His artwork is so unique, that he has now been invited to participate in an art show in New York City. The Artist Project is an exhibition of fine art from unrepresented international artists.

"Maybe people need to hear that a person like me, who's functional and doing something worthwhile, had a period in his life where he was afraid of himself and needed help," Walt Brodis said.

Just as Brodis' life began improving, his youngest son, Joe, began to have bipolar symptoms.

"It's a very different picture for kids who have bipolar disorder. We recognized what his strengths were and that he could still have a successful life, but we had to do these other things, like he would if he had any other illness, and we tried to be honest with the other kids," Donna Brodis said.

School is difficult, but medications are helping. Joe hopes someday to design video games.

"Especially for bipolar disorder, you can't give up," Joe said. "But you've got to keep pushing through."

He is grateful for the acceptance he has from friends.

"It's hard for them to understand, but for them to still be my friend, it was awesome," Joe said. "Sometimes I get mad and they deal with that, my friends. They're just there for me."

These families share a great deal of love and acceptance. They still face challenges, but mental illness does not define them.

"As we came to understand about mental illness and the treatments that are available, we saw that there was hope as well," Sherri Wittwer said.

e-mail: cmikita@desnews.com