The stigma over mental health issues, and lack of funding to correctly diagnose symptoms, compound the problem
MUNCIE — A child having hallucinations, a wife who can’t get out of bed, a father who seems to get angry without provocation. It’s overwhelming, especially when you don’t know why – and are afraid to seek answers.
“Mental health issues are like the big elephant in the room in Delaware County. We all know people are struggling but we don’t want to talk about it,” said Christine LaFollette, a Muncie resident whose daughter suffers from severe depression. “We all want to believe nothing like that would exist in our family, but that’s so not true. People are suffering silently. It’s time to change that.”
To the outsider, the darkness of depression – the constant sleeping, the nonstop tears, the long gone belief that anything good can come out of life – may look more like laziness or “the blues” than a medically described illness.
“I wish we could call these illnesses brain diseases because it’s really about the wiring in the brain. There’s often nothing a person can do about this,” said Pat Bennett, a Muncie resident who has experienced mental health issues in her family. “We need to spend time talking about what’s happening and remove the stigma about mental health. The family often feels the stigma, too, but we need to be open about it.”
And in Delaware County, that conversation needs to happen now. Statistically, more people in Delaware County suffer from poor mental health days compared to those living in Blackford, Henry, Jay and Randolph counties, according to the County Health Rankings, a national rating system created through the work of the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
As reported in the 2012 rankings, Delaware County residents reported having 4.6 poor mental health days within a 30 day period. That’s nearly one work week a month where residents felt depressed, anxious, stressed or suffered other indicators of mental illnesses.
That’s higher than the state average of 3.6 days and the national benchmark or goal of 2.3 days in 30 days.
Local experts and mental health advocates aren’t sure why the rates are higher in Delaware County, but believe the higher unemployment rates, obesity numbers and lack of health insurance for close to 13,000 residents could play a major role.
The cost of caring for a mental illness – if it is diagnosed – is close to $1,500 per year according to the National Institutes for Mental Health. Without insurance and minus the funds to pay for mental and medical health services, residents may experience more poor mental health days, especially compared to wealthier counties and areas with funding for mental health screening.
“I know, for myself, when I eat something I shouldn’t and am not happy with my weight, I don’t feel great about myself. I think that actually affects a lot of people,” “Stigma is definitely a problem,” said Josh Williams, administrator for the Delaware County health department. “We could increase access but the question is, if we build it, will they come? I’m not so sure.”
Suicide is the extreme example of an untreated mental illness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report suicide of the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, nearly twice as much as homicides.
In 2001, Sheri Hole’s husband committed suicide, after suffering from what she believes now is severe depression.
When she searched for help handling the after-effects of the suicide – including her own depression – there were few places to turn. Until recently, Delaware County was one of three areas in the state without a suicide prevention coalition, a group that assists survivors of suicide and those with mental illnesses.
Although she had “ a lot of love and caring support from members of my church family,” there were members of the family who were concerned about others learning about the suicide.”
“My mother – she will be 95 this year so she’s from a different generation – was concerned it would be in the paper and decided she would tell people his heart stopped,” she said. “We need to spread awareness that this is real. It isn‘t anything to be ashamed or embarrassed about. Mental health is something we all need to take seriously.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has created the free Family-to-Family education program, a 12-week series teaching families about various mental illnesses, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and more.
The program was last held in Delaware County in 2010. A minimum of 12 people – family members not those suffering with the diseases – is required to hold the session locally.
The class provides educational information about a family member’s illness but also exercises to prompt relatives to understand what other are going through.
LaFollette’s daughter suffers from auditory hallucinations along with her depression. In a class exercise, she got a small glimpse of what her daughter and others may be handling. In the exercise, someone whispered in her ear, starting with positive thoughts and moving to “you’re horrible. you’re not worth anything. Neither is the person across from you. They hate you. They want to kill you. Do something. Now. Do it now. Do it now. Do it now. Do it now.’
“The whispering nearly drove me insane,” she said. “It was such an eye opener. It helped me understand my baby in a new way.”
Some residents aren’t ready to speak about mental health concerns in their family, according to Bennett, who teaches the local class, but all evidence indicates there are people suffering from mental illnesses in East Central Indiana.
Instead of blaming families for relatives with these illnesses, the Family-to-Family program helps them understand what these diseases do to the brain and what they – family members – can do to find sanity.
They do not have to handle these issues alone. Others are available to help them.
“When I think of the families, especially (the family of James E. Holmes, charged with killing 12 people in a Colorado movie theater), I think we should really think pray for them and keep them in our thoughts.” Bennett said. “People don’t understand – except for the families with their own loved ones struggling with mental health issues – what this it’s like. Again, that’s why we need to talk about it. We need to hold open conversations and learn from each other.”