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Stigma of Mental Illness Still Forces Families to Suffer in Silence 

People won't be encouraged to seek help unless they can receive help without shame.

By Carol Carothers and Dennis King

Appearing in the Portland Press Herald October 5, 2010 

Portland -  A Portland teen experiences serious mental health symptoms.

She makes numerous suicide attempts and is admitted to the Spring Harbor Hospital psychiatric center in Westbrook on several occasions.

While the family spends months in crisis, their anguish goes unfelt by those around them. They choose to suffer in silence rather than subject themselves to the judgments and misconceptions of their relatives and friends.

A local attorney finds himself in the throes of depression after the loss of his job, a major heart attack and the breakup of his marriage.

He spends weeks at home, blinds closed, feeling powerless and unable to share his pain with others.

He begins contemplating suicide, even purchasing the rope with which he intends to end his life before making a final call for help. That call leads to a psychiatric hospitalization and subsequent outpatient treatment that he now credits with saving his life.

Although we have both worked in the mental health field for decades, stories like this remain all too common.

How is it that shame, ridicule and guilt continue to shadow mental health problems when a full one-quarter of Americans experience them? Despite its prevalence, mental illness continues to compel individuals and families to suffer alone, in silence.

This is Mental Illness Awareness Week, a time set aside nationally to draw attention to the reality of mental illness and the courageous struggles of those who face its symptoms every day of their lives.

That suffering is often unbeknownst to even their closest friends and loved ones.

Like so many illnesses, mental health problems don't discriminate based on age, race, religion or socioeconomic status.

Maine's mental health providers, peer and family support organizations, and advocacy groups serve children, adults and families of every ethnic and religious background, both the poor and privileged.

Yet the insidious veil of stigma makes mental health challenges more heartbreaking than many other major illnesses. Imagine, for example, feeling ashamed of having cancer or heart disease or fearing ridicule if you were to share that news with family or friends.

For practically every serious ailment, that scenario is simply unimaginable, except for those touched by mental illness.

This summer, Millicent "Milly" Monks of Cape Elizabeth, a descendent of the iconic Carnegie family, released her memoir, "Songs of Three Islands."

In the book, Monks recounts her famous family's struggles with mental illness over several generations.

In speaking about her book, Monks says she hopes it will offer solace to families who, like hers, have suffered doubly: once from the illness itself, and once again from the secrecy and isolation that still surround the illness.

sharing her story, Monks is helping to bring mental health problems out of the shadows and into the national dialogue.

Families all across the nation and here in Maine have been quietly and consistently sharing their stories and helping support each other since NAMI was founded more than 25 years ago.

Still, we need more people like Milly Monks and others, both families and people who experience mental illness, to continue to bravely step forward to identify mental health problems for what they truly are: legitimate, treatable illnesses, with many stories of recovery and hope.

Today, proven behavioral therapies and reliable medicines are making a real difference in the lives of those diagnosed with mental illness. Mental health professionals are doing remarkable support and healing.

Support groups led by individuals and families who have experienced the stigma of mental illness first-hand are offering comfort and understanding to their peers across Maine.

Yet, so much more needs to be done. That is why, during this special week of the year, we express our thanks to all those who have been brave enough to share their mental health challenges.

The steps of a few are beginning to succeed in breaking down the barriers for many, allowing them to emerge from the shadows and seek solace, treatment and hope.

Together, families, people with mental illness and treatment professionals can make it safe for all who are affected to speak out and offer hope to others.

Each of us can promote education, understanding and respect so that no one has to feel afraid or ashamed, and all who need help can obtain it.

Carol Carothers
is executive director of NAMI-Maine (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and Dennis King is president of Maine Mental Health Partners.

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