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ORANGE COUNTY PEOPLE / ACHIEVEMENTS AND CELEBRATIONS
| ANN CONWAY

Honorees Take Healthy Approach to View of Mental Illness

February 22, 2001|ANN CONWAY

Isa Hanna was appalled: not only was the lead character in a popular sitcom downplaying the significance of her hallucinations, her would-be psychiatrist was peddling pills like so many confections in a candy shop.

A longtime supporter of the Orange County Mental Health Assn., Hanna knew about the horror of hallucinatory symptoms. And he knew the benefits that appropriately prescribed medications could bring to a mentally ill patient.

After seeing the episode on television, Hanna contacted the show's producers and shared his concerns about the cavalier messages it was sending.

Thanks in part to Hanna's activism, a later episode featured the character dutifully taking her medication and suggesting that a friend get treatment.

Hanna, a retired pharmacist, was recognized by the Mental Health Assn. of Orange County last week for his contributions toward helping eradicate the stigma of mental illness and furthering the causes of mental health in the community.

About 270 supporters of the association gathered at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach for the seventh annual Thomas F. Riley Service Awards luncheon.

Psychologist Frederick J. Frese, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, spoke to the crowd about the challenges of coping with mental illness.

"I wouldn't be here without these pills I carry around with me all of the time," said Frese, 60, whose four children have been diagnosed with mental illness.

Frese, who lives in Ohio, recalled coming to Newport Beach in 1953 to attend the Boy Scout Jamboree.

Little did he know that 12 years later, he said--when he was serving in the U.S. Marines--that he would begin to hear the voices, suffer the delusions, that would lead to his being "committed as insane."

"In those days, [the diagnosis] was like a death sentence," Frese said during a pre-lunch reception. "Now, there's so much hope on the horizon. We're learning more; the stigma is becoming less."

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The difference? "The pills that I carry with me," he said. "New medications have been developed during the past 12 years that have made a big difference.

"The old medications focused only on the dopamine receptors in the brain. The new types focus both on the dopamine and serotonin receptors."

In an aside, Frese said he was glad to hear that the story of John Nash, a paranoid schizophrenic who won the Nobel Prize for work on game theory, was being made into a movie starring Russell Crowe. The film, "A Beautiful Mind," is based on a book with the same title by Sylvia Nasar (Touchstone, $16).

"It's a good book that unveils the fact that a high percentage of persons who have developed [scientific] innovations either themselves have [mental] disorders or have it in their families," Frese said. The reason, Frese added, "was that persons with these disorders have certain cognitive and perceptual abilities that are superior to those of chronically normal folks."

Luncheon committee member Dolli Albert, whose son has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, said her son has learned the hard way that he must remain on medication if he expects to have a productive life.

After becoming stabilized several years ago, her son began to feel so well that he neglected his medication and suffered a relapse, she said. Delusional, he ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

Now, medications have again stabilized him. "He has told me that he has faced his illness, taken responsibility for it," Albert said. "I guess he had to go through that to know he needed to stay in treatment."

Throughout her son's ordeal, the association has been an invaluable source of support. "I've learned to talk about mental illness and I've learned how to deal with it," she said.

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For people whose loved ones have been diagnosed with mental illness, Albert would tell them: "Educate yourselves about the illness and stay healthy. If you're healthy and learning how to effectively help someone in treatment, chances are it will go full circle--your loved one will get healthy too."

During the festivities, psychiatrist William E. Callahan Jr., president of the Orange County Psychiatric Society, was recognized for his contributions to the promotion of mental health.

"A lot of my concerns about mental illness come from the fact that the mentally ill are suffering from discrimination and prejudice," he said. "It is important for the public to understand that "we can put these illnesses into remission today."

In turn, Callahan presented three Orange County teens with awards from the Orange County Psychiatric Society for having written essays on "When Not to Keep a Secret."

Receiving awards: Edward Smetak and Melissa White, students at La Habra High, and Christina Bell, a student at Saddleback High in Santa Ana.

Some secrets are best not kept, Callahan told the crowd. "With the homicides and suicides we're seeing in schools today, we know students are struggling with secrets" they're trying to keep about their friends.

Sharing a secret might save a life.

Information on the association: (714) 547-7559.

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Ann Conway can be reached by phone at (714) 966-5952 or by fax at (714) 966-7790.

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