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PR Drive to Fight Stigma of Mental Illness


Local politicians are being given lollipops labeled "Lick Mental Illness."

Schoolchildren are getting coloring books that depict mental disorders.

Mental patients are being encouraged to step forth and discuss their illness publicly.

It's part of an unusual publicity campaign being conducted this month by Ventura County leaders who are attempting to combat the age-old stigma faced by the mentally ill.

Officials say that a better understanding of mental disorders is needed in the county, where an estimated 5,500 adults and 2,500 children are struggling with such illnesses.

Similar efforts are being made during October throughout California, where about 1.5 million are thought to have mental disorders.

"The state undertook to put together a huge education program because often the stigma that the mentally ill face can be worse than the mental illness itself," said Kassy Perry, assistant director of public affairs for the state Department of Mental Health.

The project follows a national movement to inform the public about research that in the last 10 years has identified serious mental illnesses as chronic, biological disorders of the brain and central nervous system.

Such findings have shown that serious disorders such as schizophrenia, manic depression and severe clinical depression can be treated with medication and therapy.

Those afflicted should be viewed no differently than victims of other chronic disorders, Perry said.

"Mental illness is not something to be ashamed about," she said. "It's like diabetes and we don't keep people with diabetes locked in closets."

But despite the possibility of successful treatment, those who are mentally ill are often prevented from living normally by the ill-informed stereotypes that follow them, Perry said.

Misperceptions abound that the mentally ill are violent or untreatable. People still believe that schizophrenia--a distortion of reality often characterized by delusions and hallucinations--means a split personality. Some mistakenly believe that mental illnesses are caused by bad parenting.

Ignorance Hurts Many

Such ignorance works against mentally ill people trying to resume normal lives, Perry said.

Those who admit they've suffered from mental illness often are denied medical insurance. They're kept out of housing. They're not hired for jobs, she said.

In Ventura County, several mentally ill people who are helping with the local public awareness campaign say they have experienced such discrimination.

Cathy, 42, said she never tells potential employers that she suffers from schizo-affective disorder, partial schizophrenia characterized by episodes of major depression.

"You can't say you're schizophrenic on an application," said the Oxnard resident, who asked that her last name be withheld because she's searching for a job. "They won't hire you."

Ventura resident Pat Spence said that misperceptions of mental illness worked against her 24-year-old son four years ago when he began sliding into schizophrenia.

His grandmother, with whom he was living in Santa Barbara, refused to tell Spence about her son's symptoms. They included hearing voices and an inability to function at college.

Hiding Illness

"She had this old-fashioned view that he would be put in an institution and undergo shock therapy and never get out," Spence said. "She tried to hide his illness from us."

Years later, with proper medication and therapy, Spence's son has made considerable progress, she said. Now, Spence said, she takes every opportunity to discuss her son's illness and she welcomes the publicity campaign the county is running.

"They have been forgotten people," Spence said. "Any time anyone talks about it is good."

A growing number of organizations throughout the country are trying to fight the stigma surrounding the mentally ill.

Jack and Jo Ann Hinckley founded the American Mental Health Fund in 1983, two years after their son John tried to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan. John Hinckley is now in a psychiatric institute in Washington.

The fund's goal is to increase public awareness and reduce the stigma of mental illness. In the last three years it has provided information on mental illness to 300,000 people, according to its leaders. Its name and toll-free telephone number can be found on milk cartons and soon will be advertised on the sides of grocery store bags.

Last year, the American Psychiatric Assn. focused on education, suggesting that local branches advertise their cause through such activities as candlelight vigils and telethons.

California timed this year's education campaign, titled "Mental Illness: New Directions," to coincide with the begining of National Mental Illness Awareness Week.

The state produced a 21-minute informational videotape and held training sessions to acquaint leaders in all 58 counties with the campaign. County officials were asked to develop their own local programs.

Like Other Illnesses

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