Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Doing my part to raise awareness about mental health August 3, 2022

A hand reaches skyward in a mental health themed sculpture that once graced a street corner outside the Northfield, Minnesota, Public Library. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2019)

WHEN HE HEARD ME rant for the umpteenth time about “people just don’t get it, they don’t understand,” he advised, “Then you need to educate them.”

He, my husband of 40 years, is right. Venting to Randy about offensive terminology and uninformed/misinformed comments and attitudes about mental illness does nothing other than temporarily ease my frustrations. Speaking out, writing, based on my observations and experiences, can make a difference. So write about my concerns I will, with the disclaimer that I am not a medical professional.

I photographed this shirt at an event at the Northfield Public Library. This message refers to the struggles with mental illness. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2019)

WORDS MATTER

Today—on the heels of recent offensive lyrics by Beyonce’—seems the right time to share what’s bothered me for way too long. The pop singer used the derogatory term, “spaz/spazzin,” in her new release, “Heated.” Although she was referencing spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy causing motor impairments in limbs, and not mental health, the analogy fits. Her word choice proved offensive to people who are disabled. And rightly so. To her credit, Beyonce’ acknowledged her unintentional slur and is changing the lyrics. Just like Lizzo, who used the same wordage not all that long ago.

For the millions who each day bravely face mental health challenges and for those who love them, everyday careless language can hurt. Words like crazy, insane, nuts, it’s all in their head, off their rocker, out of his/her mind…are hurtful. As hurtful as the lyrics sung by Beyonce’ and Lizzo.

Recently, while reading a Good Morning America Book Club selection published in 2021, I came across this phrase: “the usual terrible but addictive schizophrenic medley.” In the context of this fictional story, the character was not talking about anything mental health related, but rather about what she was seeing on Instagram. I stopped reading and considered how insulting those words, especially to someone diagnosed with schizophrenia. I doubt the author intended to offend. But she did.

Buttons previously available for the taking at the Northfield library. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

IF YOU HAD…

Now you might say I’m being overly-sensitive. But consider if you, or someone you loved, was diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, whatever, and uncaring words (which I can’t even think of) were tossed out there. It’s no different for those diagnosed with bi-polar, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder…

I’m thankful individuals undergoing cancer treatment and/or who have survived cancer, for example, are not subjected to negative/offending words and behavior, but rather are supported with encouragement, fundraisers, even hot dishes delivered to their homes. That type of care and attitude should be a model for how all of us treat individuals dealing with a mental health crisis and their families. We should respond with equal love, compassion, care and understanding. And tangible support.

A sign explains the story behind the “Waist Deep” sculpture in Northfield. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019)

CHANGING ATTITUDES, BUT MORE IS NEEDED

I recognize attitudes toward mental health are changing, that, as a whole, we are growing more informed, finally beginning to reduce the stigma of brain disorders. But much work remains. Individuals in a mental health crisis should have immediate access to care. Busy, understaffed emergency rooms are often the first-line treatment option. I don’t know of a single doctor who would send a person experiencing a heart attack home. Individuals in a mental health crisis, the equivalent of a heart attack, deserve the same immediate life-saving care. Yet the wait to see a psychiatrist often exceeds six weeks, at least here in greater Minnesota. That’s unacceptable.

There’s a need for more mental healthcare professionals and in-patient treatment and recovery centers. There’s a need for more funding, more research. Insurance companies should not determine care/medications or refuse to fully cover mental healthcare expenses.

This sculpture, once located outside the Northfield library, is called “Waist Deep” and addresses mental illness. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2019)

IT STARTS WITH EACH OF US

At a grassroots level—that’s each of us individually—more compassion, support, understanding are needed. A few years ago I walked into a southwestern Minnesota brewery and spotted a man sporting a jacket advertising a neighboring brewery. Imprinted on the back was an image of a straitjacket. I could not believe what I was seeing, especially after also reading the offensive name of the brewery. Later I looked online to read the brewery’s list of “Crazy Good Beer” with words like manic, catatonic, lobotomy, kookaloo… in the craft beer names. Simply writing this makes my blood pressure rise. I wanted to rip that jacket right off that beer drinker, so strong was my anger in that moment. Imagine the uproar, for example, if a brewery used words like chemo or radiation in its beer names or used an IV drip as its logo. Somehow a straitjacket is OK? Not from my perspective.

Imagine, too, if you have gone through cancer treatment and someone said you will be fine now that you’ve completed treatment. In the back of your mind, you recognize that the cancer could return despite the treatment. It’s no different for someone with a serious mental illness. Drugs work for awhile and then they don’t. Medications and therapy help manage symptoms, but there is no cure. Symptoms can return. Relapses, crises, happen.

I highly recommend this book, among many I’ve read on the topic of mental illness. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

GRATITUDE & RESOURCES

I appreciate every single person who has made a concerted effort to understand mental health, mental illness specifically. I appreciate organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which works tirelessly to support individuals and their families who face mental health challenges. I appreciate NAMI’s advocacy work and education. I appreciate mental healthcare professionals. And, most of all, I admire those individuals who deal with mental illness—whether depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bi-polar… They are among the strongest people I know and they deserve, yes, deserve, our love, compassion, understanding, support and respect.

THOUGHTS?

RESOURCES: If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, seek immediate help. Call 911. Call 988, the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Connect with NAMI. You are not alone.

Click here to read previous posts I’ve penned on mental health.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling