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ANN CONWAY

Bearing in Mind the Undeserved Stigma of Mental Illness

June 15, 1998|ANN CONWAY

It was an audience to give even a veteran actor like Mike Connors the jitters--a crop of the country's leading brain research scientists.

Seated before him while he was onstage at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach: William E. Bunney, Blynn Garland Bunney, Steven G. Potkin, Joseph Wu, Ahmad Najafi and Yi Jin. All are staff members of the UC Irvine College of Medicine's department of psychiatry and human behavior.

"What am I doing up here?" joked the star of the '60s TV smash "Mannix."

But he knew. Since his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia 25 years ago, Connors has been an outspoken supporter of the mentally ill, trying to help erase the stigma of mental illness.

The researchers were among 200 guests who watched Connors receive the Silver Ribbon Award from the university's Brain Imaging Center Committee during a benefit dinner last week. Committee members raise funds for the center, a diagnostic and treatment facility for patients with neurological and neuropsychiatric diseases.

"We honor Mike Connors for his outspoken voice in our fight against the social stigma of mental illness," said Thomas C. Cesario, dean of the UCI College of Medicine.

"I'm honored to receive this award," Connors, 72, told the crowd. "And I'm grateful for having become acquainted with UCI. We all need to help people understand what mental illness really is so we can raise more money for research."

During a cocktail reception, Potkin, executive director of the Brain Imaging Center, defined mental illness: "The brain is an organ that sometimes doesn't function right--just like your heart, liver or any other organ," he said. "So you get it looked after--seek the right treatment. People need to look at mental illness that way, rather than treating it as though it was some mystical aspect of the mind or will.

"It's a no-fault illness. You don't have it because you're mean or bad or because you have the wrong attitude. It can strike anyone, regardless of their family, education or upbringing."

Mike and Mary Lou Connors' son was a happy youngster when suddenly, at 15, he began to hallucinate and hear voices, his father said.

Horrified by the change in their son's behavior, the couple took the boy to UCLA for diagnostic treatment. "They told us he had schizophrenia," Connors said. "And in those days, psychiatrists and psychologists felt that most of a child's problems were the result of his parental upbringing--which we now know is completely wrong. We now know [schizophrenia] is a biological or chemical illness, for the most part," he said. "Researchers are still trying to figure it out.

"But we do know it is as much of a disease as cancer, Parkinson's, AIDS or diabetes--and just as deserving of research," he said. "The main thing is to get the information out to the public and legislators that mental illness is not purely a psychological problem."

Added Potkin: "It's a shame people don't understand this. But with the Brain Imaging Center, people can now see pictures of the living brain that demonstrate how it is malfunctioning. That can be very helpful for people to say: 'Gee, this is a real illness.' And that's the first step."

Also among guests: Robert Bonney of Laguna Hills, winner of the committee's Outstanding Volunteer award; committee president Peggy Goldwater Clay (who is planning to write a book about her late father, Sen. Barry Goldwater); Dee Harvey; Zang Hee Cho; Peggy and Robert Sprague; Eric and Lila Nelson; Jean Liechty; and Ed and Floss Schumacher.

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A New Leaf: Adeline Yen Mah of Huntington Harbour, author of the international bestseller "Falling Leaves" (Wiley & Sons), plans to establish a foundation so that American children will be encouraged to learn the Chinese language. To that end, she will donate to the foundation the home in Shanghai where she spent much of her childhood.

"When I was growing up in Shanghai, even though there were thousands and thousands of Europeans and Americans who lived there, they never learned to speak Chinese," Mah, 60, told guests at a recent luncheon in her honor at the Center Club in Costa Mesa. "I want this to change; it is not a difficult language," she said. "I want my foundation to help instill the desire in the young generation--any generation--toward learning and understanding the culture of China. I think for our two countries to get along, it is essential," she said.

Mah's home in Shanghai will be featured in an NBC miniseries based on her book. It is set to air in September 1999. The luncheon was hosted by Nella Webster, an executive with U.S. Trust.

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