The Southwest Utah National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) held a community meeting on Wednesday, January 18, 2012. The Kane County Hospital Foundation sponsored this presentation as part of their continuing health education series.

Kathleen Salter, Hospital Foundation Chairperson, introduced speaker Lynn Bjorkam, President of the NAMI organization. NAMI Southwest Utah is a local affiliate of a national non-profit grassroots organization that assists families, friends and individuals living with mental illness.

Bjorkam gave a slide show presentation and stressed the fact that mental illness is not a choice, nor is recovery from mental illness by chance. In fact, mental illnesses can be a devastating brain disorder, effecting not only those who have the disorder, but also their family and friends. 

Bjorkam discussed the cruelty of the stigma in treating mental illness, and the awkwardness felt towards mental illness because “We fear what we don’t understand.” Most people don’t know how to respond to mental illness problems.

Colds, cancer, heart diseases, diabetes are predictable diseases. Behaviors in mental illness can be strange and unpredictable. Examples: the person is talking to people who no one else sees, believes they are being attacked and bleeding. They work energetically without sleep for several days on end. They turn lights off and on seven or eight times before leaving a room. They may stay in bed, not moving around for days. They may withdraw and do something considered to not be the normal standard of behavior. They may be considered by others to be witches, mad/crazy, or possessed by demons.

Bjorkam explained all this has led to thousands of years of cruelty or stigma towards mental illness.

When a person is first confronted with the reality of mental illness, they may have difficult questions: Why me? What can my family do to help me? What can I do to help my family? It can be an overwhelming situation.

What are the consequences of the stigma attached to mental illness? A reluctance to seek help for fear of condemnation. Family embarrassment which stifles communication with others. The person thinks God looks down on them, is punishing them and shuns them. The person thinks they belong in a “loony” bin.

The person experiences well-intentioned, but cruel verbal treatment from those closest to them. Such as “Get a grip on yourself.” “Just make yourself get out of bed.” “Do something with yourself.” “Show some character.” “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Bjorkman explained these are appropriate statements in the right circumstances, but not for a person with a serious mental illness. They become cruel comments that show a lack of misunderstanding, and are a misguided attempt at encouragement indicating the person is not really ill, but suffers a defective character weakness.

Bjorkman said the brain is the most important organ we have. Serious mental illness is the result of a broken brain. People who have mental illness have a brain disorder, not a character defect. Mental illness can be caused by a chemical imbalance, change in cell structure, or a change in blood flow to portions of the brain.

Unlike other organs, when the brain does not work as it should, unusual bizarre behaviors are the result. Currently there are no tests that can identify mental illness like there are for other physical disorders, such as blood tests. There are imaging techniques of the brain, currently used for research, but not for diagnosis. 

Suicide: Mental illness/brain disorder is often fatal. 90% of all suicides are associated with mental disorders. 50% of people with substance abuse have mental illness. Suicide is the eleventh leading cause of death in the USA. More years of life are lost to suicide than to any other single cause, except heart disease and cancer.

Mental illness impacts suicide. Understanding mental illness greatly impacts our efforts to help those who are contemplating suicide.

Bjorkman gave suggestions on how to help those with mental illness. It is best is to seek professional help. A mental health professional is the only source of a meaningful diagnosis, based upon listening to, observing, and administering tests to the patient over a period of time.

Make an appointment with a psychiatrist or other MD with experience specializing in mental illness and can prescribe proper medication, if necessary, to obtain stability, or find a therapist who can help the patient work through their issues. Often the person with the mental illness will think there is nothing wrong with them, 50% of those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder do not seek help.

There are organizations that provide education and support like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Bridges and Connection programs. Developing support groups within the community is a significant step forward. It is important to realize you are not alone.

NAMI sponsors local support groups by offering a free 12-session course Family-to-Family Education Program. The program is open to family caregivers of individuals with mental illness, schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, manic depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, co-occurring brain disorders and addictive disorders. The course teaches ways to understand and help the person, and helps the family overcome the difficulties of coping with this crisis. Find help. Find hope.

For more information, write to: PO Box 2265, St. George, UT 84771, call Ruth 435-688-9458 or Lynn 435-256-8351 or go online www.NAMI.org or www.NAMIutah.org.