Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Focus on mental health: What we can do May 26, 2021

Photographed at the Northfield Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited and copyrighted photo.

IF YOUR FRIEND was battling cancer, what would you do? Send an encouraging card? Deliver a meal? Offer a ride to the doctor’s office? Plan or support a fundraiser for her?

Now, what if that same friend was battling clinical depression? Would you do the same?

I’d like to hope we’d all answer “yes.” That we would respond in the same loving and supportive way whether someone was fighting cancer or dealing with a serious, debilitating mental illness.

But the truth is that most of us wouldn’t. And there are multiple reasons for our inaction. We are unaware. We don’t understand. We’re too uncomfortable. We’re at a loss as to what to do. We may even wonder why our friend can’t just get over it.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL

Yet, those struggling with serious mental health issues need our support, encouragement, understanding, compassion and love. They can’t simply wish away chemical imbalances in their brains. They can’t simply take a pill and magically return to good health. The struggle is real. As real as cancer.

I’m hopeful that an increasing focus on mental health, especially during the pandemic, will shift thinking and reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. That’s a start. But so much more needs to be done.

WE NEED…

We need more mental health professionals. In my area of Minnesota, the wait to see a psychiatrist can be lengthy. Some doctors are not even taking new patients. Psychiatric care is limited, especially in areas outside the metro. That’s how bad it is. Imagine being in a mental health crisis, the equivalent of a heart attack, and being told you can’t get medical attention for six weeks? That’s reality for way too many people.

We need more funding for research that will lead to new, more effective medications or other treatments for mental illnesses.

We need early intervention. Education. Heightened awareness.

We need to move this beyond buzz words and hashtags. We need to stop throwing out offensive words like “crazy,” “insane,” or “nuts” when talking about mental illness or anything, really.

YOU CAN HELP

I recognize we as individuals hold little power over changing most of those problems. But we do have the ability to, on a very basic level, acknowledge and support those in our circle who are dealing with mental health issues. Send a card. Deliver a meal. Offer a ride. Listen. Give a financial gift—individuals and families in the throes of a mental health crisis often face overwhelming financial challenges. There’s so much we can do. If only we choose to take action.

FYI: May marks Mental Health Awareness Month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is an excellent resource for information on mental health. If you or someone you love is in crisis, seek immediate medical attention in your emergency room. That’s a starting point. Above all, please know that help is available and that you are not alone. The same goes for those who care for and love family members struggling with mental health. NAMI offers confidential family support groups.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health: A Minnesotan writes about her depression May 20, 2021

ARE YOU STRUGGLING with everyday tasks? Unable to get out of bed? Feeling hopeless? Overwhelmed?

You are not alone. I think all of us have struggled during this past pandemic year. Maybe not to the extent of the challenges listed, but in other ways. It’s been a lot. I’m thankful that, if anything good comes from this pandemic, it’s an increased awareness of mental health issues.

I am grateful for writers like K.J. (Kristine) Joseph for opening up about her clinical depression in her powerful memoir, Simply Because We Are Human. The Minnesota author reveals her life-long struggles with an incurable disease caused by a chemical imbalance in her brain. And that’s important to note—that depression like hers has a physical cause that can be treated, not cured. Clinical depression is much deeper than the typical I’m-feeling-kind-of-down today.

“If only my pain and illness were visible to the world…then people would understand,” Joseph writes. She’s right. Mental illness needs to be viewed through the same lens as any other illness. Except we know it all too often isn’t. The stigma remains. The lack of understanding remains. The misinformation remains. Too many still think you can will yourself, or snap yourself, out of depression or other mental illness. That doesn’t work.

That’s why books like this are so important in changing perceptions, in educating, and in building empathy and understanding.

For Joseph, her first memory of the darkness which would enter her life occurred at age eight. At age 13, feelings of emptiness, non-stop crying, sadness and, for the first time, suicidal thoughts developed. In her 20s, she would once again contemplate suicide as she stood in her kitchen, knife in hand.

It was the death of a 17-year-old friend in high school that propelled Joseph to open up about her depression. I especially appreciate Joseph’s assessment of Matt’s depression-caused suicide: “Matt took his own life because he was sick, and that was how I saw it.” By writing that, she helps ease blame and guilt which often follow a suicide.

In telling her story, Joseph also writes about ways in which she manages her clinical depression. And that is via medication, hard work and taking care of herself. She is a runner, a life-long interest/activity tracing back to childhood. In high school, she ran on the track team, even competed in the state meet. Running helps manage her depression, putting her in a calm, meditative state.

Therein lie the additional strengths of Joseph’s memoir. She offers hope. She reveals how she navigates her depression, what works for her, including taking medication. She acknowledges the reality of her mental illness. And she is open about her struggles. I applaud Joseph for writing about her clinical depression, for her raw honesty, for sharing her stories. For it is through personal stories that we most connect. And begin to understand.

TO PURCHASE Simply Because We Are Human, click here.

FYI: If you or someone you care about is struggling with mental health, please seek help. You are not alone. Here are some resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 800-273-8255 (free, confidential and available 24/7).

National Alliance on Mental Illness

May marks Mental Health Awareness Month. I pledge to continue my efforts to raise awareness and to reduce the stigma of mental illness. Please read previous reviews I’ve written on books about mental illnesses by clicking here, then here, next, here, and, finally, here.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health: The family living along Hidden Valley Road May 10, 2021

…I THOUGHT I WAS such a good mother. I baked a cake and a pie every night. Or at least had Jell-O with whipped cream.

That quote from Mimi Galvin, mother of 12, struck me as particularly personal and profound in a 377-page book focusing on one family’s experiences with schizophrenia. Six of Mimi and Don Galvin’s children developed schizophrenia, labeled by author Robert Kolker as “humanity’s most perplexing disease.”

Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road—Inside the Mind of an American Family rates as a difficult read. But this 2020 Oprah’s Book Club pick is something every single person should read to understand the depths and intricacies of a biologically-based brain disorder like schizophrenia. And how it affected one Colorado family with children born between 1945-1965.

But back to that quote and the context thereof. Doctors and others blamed Mimi for her sons’ mental illnesses. Their criticism left her crushed, traumatized, paralyzed, ashamed. Feeling all alone and guilty, as if she wasn’t a “good mother.” Such was the accusatory thinking of medical professionals. Mothers, especially, were targeted and even labeled as “schizophrenogenic mothers.” Can you imagine? Movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (released in 1960) reinforced that theory with Norman Bates’ mother blamed for his delusional homicidal mania.

This was also the era of shock therapy and restraints and so much misunderstanding and horror. Even unafflicted Galvin siblings wondered why their brothers couldn’t simply snap out of it. That thought pattern seems almost laughable, even absurd, to me. Yet, too many people still think that. Why can’t someone simply shut out delusional thoughts and paranoia, stop talking gibberish, separate perception from reality, silence the voices in their head, go to sleep rather than stay awake all night…? And more, much more, detailed with heartbreaking truth in this story of the Galvin family.

This family experienced heartbreak almost beyond belief. Tragedy. Abuse. Violence. Disconnect. Feelings of abandonment. So. Much. Trauma.

If I ended this review now, you would likely feel incredibly disheartened, wondering why you would even want to read such a book. And you would be justified in thinking that. But this story of an American family in the thick of schizophrenia is also inspiring. Hopeful. The Galvins allowed researchers to study their DNA, to learn more about “humanity’s most perplexing disease.” A disease centered in the brain. A disease with genetic markers. Mutations. A spectrum illness. No more mother/parent blaming.

I won’t attempt to further explain those scientific findings. I’m not, as I term myself, a medical person. I had to read and reread the medical parts of this book. But I grasp the basics. That researchers, although too often hindered by lack of funding (including from pharmaceutical companies), continue to work on researching and understanding schizophrenia, on finding better medications to treat symptoms and, ultimately, to prevent the onset of this horrible disease.

I encourage you to read Hidden Valley Road. You may struggle to get through this story. But press on. And then, when you’ve finished, vow to love, support and encourage anyone dealing with mental health issues. And their families.

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FYI: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health, seek help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, which originated in Minnesota, is a good place to start. I will continue to do what I can to advocate, educate and increase awareness.

I invite you to read three previous reviews I’ve written on books that focus on mental health:

Fix What You Can—Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son by Mindy Greiling

Behind the Wall—The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents by Mary Widdifield and Elin Widdifield

The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954 by Susan Bartlett Foote

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health October 10, 2020

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.

How well I remember those words printed on the back of her red, white and blue plaid shirt. Uppercase letters all in white.

Given the cultural event I was attending in September 2019, I surmised the message related to immigration issues. But when I asked, the young woman replied that the words referenced struggles with mental health. She battles depression and credited family support for her “doing well right now” status.

How are you? Are you doing well right now? Or are you struggling? You don’t have to answer that publicly. Just think about it.

Today marks World Mental Health Day. I won’t get into the intricacies of the day. Rather, I’d like each of you to think about mental health. Those two words often carry a negative connotation. But they shouldn’t. We all have mental health.

The past months, especially, have been hard on our mental health. We’ve lost so much. Our normalcy. Contacts and connections with family and friends. Toss in financial, health and other worries related to COVID-19, and it can be a lot.

A close-up of the hand on a sculpture, “Waist Deep,” outside the Northfield Public Library. The sculpture addresses the topic of mental health. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

But here’s one thing we need to remember—we are not alone. Not you. Not me. Not that young woman in the plaid shirt. She had her family. Such support can be powerful. As can peer and professional (therapists/psychologists/psychiatrists) support. And support groups like those offered through NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).

Medication, too, can prove invaluable in maintaining and/or restoring good mental health. Prayer and exercise and time outdoors and much more, including the support of friends, help. (Just note that any threat of suicide needs to be taken seriously and requires immediate professional care.)

“Waist Deep.” Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

If there’s one thing that bugs me, really bugs me, it’s the use of words like “crazy” and “not all there” and other such words and phrases that demean individuals struggling with their mental health. They are not to blame for a disease affecting their brains. We don’t, for example, blame people with cancer for their disease. Why is it any different for someone diagnosed with depression, anxiety, bi-polar, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD…? We need to reframe our thinking, to think with compassion and kindness and understanding rather than with an attitude of, well, why can’t you just get yourself out of bed or stop being so negative or whatever you want to insert here.

You can only imagine how I felt earlier this year (pre COVID-19) when I stopped at a brewery in rural southwestern Minnesota and spotted a man wearing a shirt with a straightjacket image on the back and the name of a nearby brewery printed below. The business graphic and name offended me. Once home, I checked out the brewery website only to find beer names like Hopzophrenia and Citra Insane-O. Really? I find such branding insensitive. One could argue that I don’t have a sense of humor, I suppose. I would respond right back, where is the humor in this?

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

Yeah, I’m on a bit of a soapbox here. But, you know, the struggle is real. And the struggle stretches to societal attitudes, to the shortage of mental healthcare professionals, to stigma and discrimination and lack of support for individuals and their families in the throes of mental health challenges.

The wait here in rural Minnesota to see a psychiatrist can stretch into months. Months. That’s unacceptable.

There’s no easy answer to all these issues related to mental health. But we can start with education, discussion and increased awareness, like today’s World Mental Health Day. We can also, as individuals, grow our understanding and compassion. Reach out to a friend or family member who needs our support. Listen. Care. And, mostly, believe that THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health: What you can do, what “we” can do March 10, 2020

 

I photographed this at an ethnic celebration last fall at the Northfield Public Library. This message refers to the struggles with mental illness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

THEY’RE NOT NUTS, crazy or whatever other derogatory term you want to tag to someone with mental health struggles.

Such uninformed, inaccurate and offensive words continue to perpetuate the stigma, the blame, the discrimination against those diagnosed with anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar, schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more.

If you sense a bit of anger in my words, it’s because I’m trying to come to terms with something offensive I saw in small town Minnesota this past weekend as it relates to mental illness. I’m currently processing this, recognizing that a knee jerk emotional reaction won’t help.

 

This sculpture outside the Northfield library is called “Waist Deep” and addresses the topic of mental health. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

 

So let’s set that aside and talk about positive things that are happening now to raise awareness and educate about mental health. This Thursday, March 12, Minnesota’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is organizing “Mental Health Day on the Hill” at the Minnesota state capitol in an effort to strengthen and expand our mental health system. That’s much-needed in a state with a severe shortage of mental healthcare professionals. A rally is set for 11 am to noon in the capitol rotunda.

 

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

 

Rallies are effective because they draw attention to a cause. But we need to do more. And that starts with each of us individually, personally. We need to educate ourselves, to show support, care and compassion to our families, our friends, our neighbors, anyone who is struggling with their mental health. Just like we rally when someone is diagnosed with cancer, we need to give that same support during a mental health crisis. But how many GoFundMe pages or local community fundraisers have you seen for someone facing insurmountable medical and other bills due to a mental illness? Not many or none, I would guess.

However, there are exceptions. Recently a Faribault police officer took his own life. In an obit published in my local newspaper, the family shared this about their loved one: He took a medical retirement after a 10 year career. He was diagnosed with PTSD and lost his battle with the disease by taking his own life. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help cover his funeral expenses with any extras going toward his children’s education. We read often in an obituary that someone died after a long, brave battle with cancer. To read about someone battling a disease like PTSD is equally as important, especially in ending the associated stigma.

There’s a reason mental illness is sometimes called the “no casserole disease.” In Minnesota, I’d say, the “no hotdish disease.” It’s time for that to change—time for us to start taking hotdishes to, sending cards, visiting, calling and otherwise supporting those who are in the throes of a mental health crisis or recovery. (And their families.) Just as we do when someone is hospitalized during and after surgery or going through chemo or…

 

A close-up of that reaching hand on the Northfield, Minnesota, sculpture. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2019.

 

And we need to speak up when people use stigmatizing words like “nuts” and “crazy.”

I appreciate that this week, and again in late April, Faribault Community School is offering an 8-hour youth mental health first aid training course to help adults identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness or substance abuse. The more we learn, the better prepared we are to help one another.

NAMI is a fantastic resource and help for anyone dealing with mental health issues. With state chapters nationwide, you can often find a nearby peer or family support group. My community doesn’t offer a family support group. But neighboring Owatonna and Northfield do.

No matter who you are, where you live, dealing with a mental health issue or not, we need to work harder on ending the stigma, raising awareness and showing compassion. I am committed to that. I hope you are, too. This affects all of us, even if you don’t realize it.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Book review: A closer look at mental health care reform in Minnesota from 1946-1954 September 19, 2019

AS A WRITER, hearing other writers share insights into their work always interests me. That includes listening to Susan Bartlett Foote talk about her book, The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954, at the Owatonna Public Library on Tuesday evening. Foote’s book won the 2019 Minnesota Book Award in nonfiction. It’s a well-deserved honor for a book which shares the powerful, and previously untold, story of reform in Minnesota’s mental health care system some 70 years ago.

Despite the four years Foote invested in researching and writing, she is quick to credit another woman for this story. Engla Schey. Foote dedicated her Minnesota Book Award to this activist and aspiring writer whom she calls the first mental health advocate in Minnesota. Schey worked initially as an attendant in several state mental health hospitals, or “insane asylums” as they were called back in the day. She witnessed first-hand the neglect, abuse, inhumane treatment, poor living and working conditions…all documented in her diaries. Foote read those diaries, in the possession of Schey’s great great niece.

The result is a deeply personal story about one ordinary woman’s efforts to change “a cynical and secretive system.” Schey’s insider perspective, Foote notes, allowed her to upend the whole structure. At the time, some 15,000 people lived in the state’s seven mental health hospitals with 80 percent of them committed and 35 percent senile/elderly. Half suffered from mental illnesses with stays of sometimes 20 years. The statistics are startling. But it is the stories Foote shares that make the most impact. Read this book and you will find yourself in tears.

As Foote related in her Tuesday evening talk, Schey quickly recognized that she needed help—of liberal churches, unions and writers—if she was to effect change within the system. She cared deeply. And personally. Her father voluntarily committed himself to the state hospital in Fergus Falls.

Eventually, the Minnesota Unitarian Church got involved, taking the approach of responsible study and analysis rather than jumping in and demanding immediate reform. The Rev. Arthur Foote (Susan Foote’s former father-in-law) led those efforts along with activist Genevieve Steefel and others.

Soon those initial reformers recognized the need to engage the press and political leadership and to build popular support, Foote said. Investigative news stories published. And some politicians, like then Minnesota Governor Luther Youngdahl, set aside partisan politics to make mental health care reform a top issue. Foote praised Youngdahl, referencing his stand that all mentally ill Minnesotans were entitled to fundamental human guarantees (dignity) and his goal to build a patient-centered mental health care system. A photo of Youngdahl burning a pile of straightjackets (and published in the book) signaled that change was going to happen, Foote said. And it did. Conditions improved both for patients and staff.

Like anything, though, change did not come easily nor is it always permanent. I experienced a deep sense of disappointment and frustration as I read in detail about all the politicking, untruths and denials. I can only imagine how those deeply involved in reform efforts felt. Youngdahls’s biggest disappointment, Foote shared with us in Owatonna on Tuesday, was that Minnesota churches (other than the Unitarians) wanted nothing to do with the issue of mental health. Has that changed much?

Youngdahl, in the ever-evolving political environment, suffered another disappointment in his failure to open a state hospital in Brainerd. One eventually opened there and my brother-in-law Brian became a resident after suffering incapacitating permanent brain damage. I knew him only briefly before his passing in 1984 at the age of 23.

At Tuesday’s talk in Owatonna, an audience member shared afterwards that a family member died of tuberculosis while hospitalized in a state hospital. Another attendee told me privately of staff intentionally breaking the legs of a man who lived at a state hospital in Faribault. For every story spoken, I expect many more remain unspoken. The hurt runs deep even all these decades later.

Although politicians and the public moved on and times changed and cuts began in the state hospital system by the early 1950s with Minnesota falling back to “average” in mental health care, Foote said, “I maintain this story is an inspiration, not a failure.”

She closed with a quote from Governor Luther Youngdahl: “Protection of the patient depends on our eternal vigilance.”

I agree. And I contend that we can all be Engla Scheys. We have within us—within our families, our circles of friends, our churches, our schools, our communities—the ability to make a difference in the lives of those dealing with mental illnesses and those who love them. Through our compassion, care, understanding, love and support. On multiple levels.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A powerful Northfield sculpture focuses on mental health July 30, 2019

 

PAUSE ON THE CORNER of Division Street by the Northfield Public Library in the heart of this historic southern Minnesota river town, and you will find yourself next to a massive rusting sculpture.

 

 

 

The public piece calls for more than a cursory glance at an abstract person reaching skyward. The art calls for passersby to stop, read the inscription at the base of the sculpture and then contemplate the deeper meaning of “Waist Deep.”

This temporary downtown art installation, created by 15 Northfield High School students and three professional artists through the Young Sculptors Project and funded with a $10,000 grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council, creates a community-wide public focus on mental health issues. After two years, the sculpture will be permanently placed in the high school courtyard sculpture garden.

 

 

Like any art, “Waist Deep” is open to personal interpretation. The signage notes, though, that the sculpture is meant to support those struggling with mental health in the community, of needing and receiving help from caring others.

 

 

As I looked at the layered and fractured pieces comprising the sculpted person, I saw beyond the arm reaching for help and the lowered arm with curved hand clawing the earth. Both represent, in my eyes, darkness and light, hopelessness and hope. Mental illness leaves a person feeling incomplete and broken. Fractured. Trying to hang on. Reaching.

 

 

I photographed the sculpture on a recent weekend morning under rainy, then partially cloudy and sunny skies, not unlike the ever-changing skies of mental illness. Sometimes pouring. Sometimes parting. Sometimes shining with hope.

As the sculpture name “Waist Deep” and art itself suggest, those dealing with mental health issues can feel waist deep in the water of the disease—flailing, perhaps unable to swim, battling the overpowering waves.

We have a responsibility to throw a life-line. How? First, start seeing mental illness like any other illness. Call it what it is—a brain disease. End the stigma. Someone suffering from depression, for example, can no more wish away or snap out of depression than a diabetic can cure his/her disease by thinking positive thoughts. Educate yourself.

 

 

Support those who are waist deep. Show compassion. They need care, love, encouragement, support just as much, for example, as cancer patients.

Be there, too, for the caregivers, who feel alone, who work behind the scenes to secure often elusive professional care for their loved ones. In Minnesota the shortage of mental health care professionals and treatment centers, especially outside the Twin Cities metro area, is documented in media report after media report. It’s a crisis situation. Telling someone in a mental health crisis they need to wait six weeks plus for an appointment with a psychiatrist or a psychologist is absurd and unacceptable. We wouldn’t say that to someone experiencing a heart attack. They would die without immediate care. Those waist deep do sometimes. Every day. And it shouldn’t be that way.

I applaud the 15 NHS students and the three artists who created the public art piece in Northfield. Projects like “Waist Deep” shine the spotlight on a disease which has too long been hidden, shoved in the dark corner of silence.

THOUGHTS?

FYI: I’d encourage you to read the book Regular & Decaf by Minnesotan Andrew D. Gadtke and published by Risen Man Publishing, LLC. It features conversations between Gadtke and his friend, both of whom have brain diseases. It’s a powerful, insightful and unforgettable read.

 

Event raises awareness of mental health issues with practical help January 22, 2019

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only.

 

I EXPECT EVERY SINGLE ONE of you has experienced the loss of someone you know to suicide. I expect also that every single one of you has been affected by mental health issues, directly or indirectly. That is reality. A reality that today is getting more exposure as we realize the importance of mental health and of helping one another through life’s challenges.

We are not meant to deal with stuff alone. I firmly believe that. No one, no matter how strong they appear, lives free of struggles. So, yeah, that person, that family, who seem to have it all together, to live the perfect lives, well, don’t believe it for a second. Every. Single. One. Of us. Has something.

I’m especially grateful for the increased awareness of mental health issues in recent years. We mostly no longer shush talk on the topic of mental illness. That is a good thing.

In Minnesota, recent attention has focused on the mental health of farmers, who deal with a tremendous amount of stress. I get it. Indirectly. My dad farmed. Stresses of work, weather, finances, crop prices and more loomed always. Add to that my dad’s post traumatic stress disorder from fighting on the front lines during the Korean War and he struggled at times. Except back then such struggles weren’t acknowledged. He’s been gone for 16 years now, too late to benefit from today’s enlightenment.

 

Source: The Galaxy

 

This coming Sunday, January 27, We Walk 4 Life Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Awareness presents a free public educational event with Stories of Hope & Healing. And practical training on Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR), described as “3 simple steps anyone can learn to help save a life from suicide.” CPR for mental health.

Ted Matthews, a rural Minnesota mental health counselor, is the keynote speaker during the 1 – 5 p.m. event at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Gaylord. Two survivors of loved ones who committed suicide will also talk. The high risk for suicide groups of farmers and youth will be the focus of Sunday’s We Walk 4 Life.

I applaud this community effort to educate, increase awareness, open discussion and save lives. Together we can form those personal connections, show that care, refer to professionals who can, and do, make a difference. No one should ever have to go life alone. No matter how alone they feel.

Thoughts?

Please note that QPR training at the Sunday event requires pre-registration by calling (507) 381-4082. Class size is limited.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Opening up about mental health January 3, 2019

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Slowly we are beginning to remove the stigma that masks mental illness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

FOR WEEKS, WE’D PRAYED for Lila*. I had no idea why she needed prayers. But it didn’t matter, pray we would as a church family for this friend who’d moved to another state.

A few weeks later, Lila’s husband returned, alone to Minnesota, to lead a local fundraiser. That morning he stepped up to the microphone after worship services and told us about Lila. She was hospitalized, undergoing treatment for severe depression and anxiety. I could almost hear the silent gasp. That took courage, I thought to myself.

I told Henry* the same when I later hugged him, expressed my concern and offered encouragement. He admitted to struggling with his decision to go public. But we agreed that the stigma surrounding mental health is beginning to lift, that talking about mental health issues is important and necessary. For Henry, a retired educator, his openness about Lila proved a freeing, teachable moment.

We all have much to learn on the topic, including me. Kicking depression is not a matter of simply willing yourself to feel better, to just get over whatever someone thinks you need to get over. It’s much deeper than that. Overcoming anxiety is not as simple as jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool and expecting someone to stay afloat.

I admire Henry’s decision to speak up. Likewise, I appreciate that my pastor publicly acknowledges his struggles with depression. That’s a first for me, to hear a pastor talk from the pulpit about personal mental health challenges. He’s young, of a generation seemingly more open to discussing mental health issues. The more we talk about mental illness, the better for those suffering and for loved ones and others trying to help.

Still, talk only goes so far. Waits can be long to see a mental health professional here in greater Minnesota. If you were having a heart attack, you wouldn’t be told to wait six weeks. If you had cancer, you wouldn’t be told to wait for treatment. A mental health crisis is no less important.

I am grateful to two bloggers I follow—Bob Collins at Minnesota Public Radio (NewsCut) and Penny Wilson (Penny Wilson Writes)—who write often on the topic of mental health. (Click here for a particularly enlightening post by Penny.) They are breaking through the stigma, opening the discussion, pointing out the challenges.

Twice in recent years I’ve stood in a snaking line at a Faribault funeral home to comfort the families of young men who committed suicide. I struggled to find the right words. I expect their loved ones struggle with the what ifs, survivor’s guilt, regrets, but, most of all, an unfathomable pain. Some grieving families are choosing now to go public in obituaries about their loved one’s struggles with depression or other mental health issues. That takes a lot of courage. We often read about a deceased person’s long and courageous battle with cancer. Battles with mental illness are no less courageous. I’m thankful to see this shift in thinking, to see people like Henry step up to a microphone and speak about mental illness.

THOUGHTS?

* Not their real names.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental illness: A Minnesota family’s story December 2, 2020

I READ THE BOOK in a single day. That should tell you something. Fix What You Can—Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son by Mindy Greiling is an incredibly powerful book. It is painfully honest, deeply personal and informative. A must read, whether you know little or a lot about people with serious mental illnesses.

Greiling writes about the flaws in the mental healthcare system—from lack of providers and treatments and options to poor communication to the struggles families face, too often alone.

You will cry with this mother as she shares the challenges faced by her son, Jim, diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and also a substance abuser. You will feel her pain, her fear, her anger. This is her story. Jim’s story. Her family’s story. Maybe your, or a loved one’s, story.

GRIEF. ANGER. ADVOCACY.

Mindy writes of transitioning through the stages of grief. From anger to advocacy. Not because her son has died, but rather grieving the loss of what may have been if not for Jim’s disease. She takes her personal experiences and uses her position as a state representative to effect changes in Minnesota laws and ways in which people view mental illness. She became involved in the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She became not only Jim’s advocate, but an advocate for the broader base. All the while managing her own fears and feelings of being alone through all of this, of experiencing trauma.

IMAGINE.

Imagine if your son heard voices directing him to kill you. Imagine if your son suffered from paranoia. Imagine if your son had to get off the one most effective medication for his disease because side effects could kill him. Imagine…

This was/is reality for the Greiling family as Jim continues to navigate life and his disease. But it is also a story of hope and resilience and the strength of not only Mindy, but of her son. She recognizes that, even with schizoaffective disorder, Jim is capable of so much. She believes in him. Never gives up. You will see that repeated throughout the pages of this book written by a determined and caring mother faced with crisis after crisis.

There is no fairy tale ending to this story. Jim’s is a life-long disease with no cure.

PUTTING A FACE TO A DISEASE

I admire Mindy, who sought her son’s input in writing this book released in early October. I admire Jim’s strength in the public telling of his story. Such first-hand accounts make an impact, take a disease beyond statistics to a face. An individual. A family. This is a mother trying her best to secure help for her son, to advocate when needed, to make tough decisions when necessary. This is a family in need of understanding and support, all too often missing when it comes to mental illness. When Mindy’s husband, Roger, emails extended family and asks them to send get well cards to Jim in a hospital psych ward, my heart breaks. But this is too often reality. Families feel alone, without much-needed support from family and friends.

LEARN. LISTEN. SUPPORT.

I encourage you to read Fix What You Can—Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son published by the University of Minnesota Press. And then, when you’ve finished, reassess how you feel about individuals who are dealing with mental illness. Consider that they did not choose these brain diseases, just like people do not choose cancer.

There is much to be learned from the Greiling family’s story. We’ve come a long way in opening up about mental health. But so much remains to be done. We need more mental healthcare providers. (Mindy writes of a six-week wait for Jim to see a psychiatrist, more common here in Minnesota than uncommon.) We need more programs. More funding. More housing and treatment options. More training for law enforcement. More understanding and compassion. And support. We can pledge, as individuals, to educate ourselves about mental illness and then to take that knowledge and be that person who sends a card, listens, prepares a meal…for an individual/family in need of our ongoing care, compassion, understanding and support. A family like the Greilings.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling