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

 

Focus on mental health after Naomi Judd’s death May 3, 2022

This message refers to the struggles with mental illness. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019)

A DAY BEFORE Mental Health Awareness Month began on May 1, the Judd family lost their beloved Naomi “to the disease of mental illness.” She was a wife, a mother and a country western superstar singer. That the family chose to publicly attribute Naomi’s cause of death to mental illness shows strength and honesty. And a desire to increase awareness.

On my reading list…

Naomi was open about her severe, treatment resistant depression. She wrote about her mental illness in a book, River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged with Hope, in 2016. I have yet to read this book, but I will. Soon.

Reflecting on Naomi’s death focused my thoughts on the many books I’ve read in recent years about mental health related topics. I’ve reviewed numerous books on my blog and written on the topic often. Why? Because I care. I care that people understand depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, anxiety… I care that we show compassion, support, encouragement and more to those dealing with these often overwhelmingly challenging and debilitating diseases. I care that stigmas vanish, that treatment options improve, that access to mental health care is easily and readily available to anyone anywhere anytime.

Love this message posted along a recreational trail in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I care, too, that no one feels alone. That anyone dealing with a mental health issue understands they are loved, valued and cherished. That families, too, feel supported.

Much progress has been made in recent years to shine the light on mental health. I appreciate that. And I appreciate the efforts of groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But, still, it is up to each of us individually to do what we can to educate ourselves and increase awareness, to offer love and support… To be there. To listen. To recognize the value of professional help.

Clinical depression like Naomi Judd experienced is deep and dark and debilitating. She couldn’t talk herself/smile herself/lift herself out of the depths of such depression. Not alone. That’s what we all need to understand. Hers wasn’t situational depression. Hers was persistent, powerful, all-encompassing. And, in the end, it killed her.

I find that reading or hearing personal stories is often the best way to understand anything. That includes mental health. For that reason, I recommend you read one or more of the following books, which I’ve previously reviewed on this blog (click on the title to read my review):

I highly-recommend this book, which is why it tops my list. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

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

Written by a former Minnesota state representative, now an advocate on mental health issues.

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

The author writes about her clinical depression.

Simply Because We are Human by K.J. Joseph

The author writes about his wife’s bipolar and the affect on their family.

Unglued—A Bipolar Love Story by Jeffrey Zuckerman

A must-read for connecting and ministering within faith communities.

One other book, which I’ve read and highly-recommend (but have not reviewed) is Troubled Minds—Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson. A friend referred me to this book and it’s a must-read. I’ve marked the pages with about a dozen Post-It notes. It’s that good, that invaluable for faith communities. Anyone really.

Thank you for reading this post. Thank you for caring about mental health. Thank you for doing your part to shine the light. To be the light.

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TELL ME: Are there any books about mental health that you recommend? Or, if you have other thoughts to share on the topic, please do. We can all learn from one another.

RESOURCES:

The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers online, telephone and in-person support (through local chapters). Call the HelpLine at 800-950-6264.

Reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mental health during COVID-19, some updates October 26, 2021

The message on this shirt references struggles with mental illness. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

IF ANYTHING POSITIVE has resulted from this still raging global pandemic of nearly two years, it’s a heightened awareness of mental health. Finally. Such awareness was long overdue, pandemic or not.

Now, in the context of the stress, anxiety, fear, isolation, depression and other health issues exasperated by living in a COVID-19 challenged world, we are thinking more about our mental health. From educators to healthcare professionals to parents to law enforcement to media. And if you say COVID hasn’t affected your mental health, I will question your truthfulness.

Yet, millions have struggled with mental health issues long before this virus turned life upside down. It’s just that all too often, we’ve closed our eyes and covered our ears to that reality. We’ve used unsavory words like “crazy” and other derogatory terms to label those battling mental illnesses. We’ve whispered and turned our backs and created stigmas. We’ve advised those struggling with depression or anxiety, for example, to simply get over it. As if that type of uncaring advice fixes anything.

Not that many years ago, treatment for mental illness was an add-on to health insurance policies. Unbelievable that individuals dealing with mental illnesses should be treated (or in this case not treated) differently than those dealing with heart attacks, cancer, broken bones… Thankfully that has changed, at least in policy. Still, the lack of mental healthcare options remains problematic, particularly in rural regions. Waits are long. Professionals few in number.

EXCITING NEWS FROM MINNESOTA

That’s why I get particularly excited when I read about plans like those of Children’s Minnesota to open an inpatient mental health center for children at its St. Paul hospital in late 2022. The center expects to treat upwards of 1,000 children annually. This past summer, Children’s opened a mental health day-program for teens in Lakeville.

All of this gives me hope. Hope that the youngest among us will get the early professional intervention and help they need. So many of our kids are struggling now, dealing with mental health issues brought on, or increased, by the pandemic.

VALIDATION FROM THE CDC

Another new development also gives me hope. The Centers for Disease Control recently added mental health conditions to the list of underlying medical conditions associated with a higher risk for severe COVID-19. Now in and of itself, that is not good news. No one wants to hear that they are at increased risk for severe disease.

But the addition of mood disorders, including depression and schizophrenia spectrum disorders, to the medical conditions list now bumps those individuals into the high priority category for COVID vaccines. A study in New York found schizophrenia to be the second highest risk factor for COVID-related death, after older age. The possible explanation—immune system issues connected to the genetics of the disorder.

Beyond that, this move by the CDC now places mental health conditions (specifically certain mood disorders) on the same plane as other high risk conditions like diabetes, obesity, chronic lung disease, etc. For those struggling with mood disorders and those who love them, this is validating. This also moves us closer to erasing the stigma inked next to the words MENTAL ILLNESS.

I’m hopeful that, as we eventually work our way out of this pandemic, we remember the importance of mental health. I hope this is more than just today’s buzzword topic. I hope that we can, as individuals, offer compassion, support, encouragement and help. I hope we recognize mental health for what it is—health. Not something that should be hidden and ignored and stigmatized.

Photographed along a recreational trail in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

FYI: The National Alliance on Mental Illness is an excellent resource for information, support, advocacy and more. Click here as a starting point for mental health information. If you or someone you care about is dealing with mental health struggles, please seek professional help. You are not alone. You are valued and loved.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Learning Mental Health First Aid September 22, 2021

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Several years ago I saw that message printed on the back of a young woman’s shirt at a community celebration. I approached her and asked about the meaning behind those words. She explained that she lives with depression and that her family has loved and supported her through her struggles. I thanked her. Encouraged her. Then walked away feeling grateful for the young woman’s openness and for her caring and loving family.

That we should all be so honest. And compassionate. But the stigma surrounding mental illness, although lessening, continues. The failure to understand and support continues. And that’s where education and training are vital—to recognize, to de-stigmatize, to make a difference in how we perceive and approach mental health.

An upcoming opportunity in my area, Mental Health First Aid, helps those enrolled in the course to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Attendees learn initial support skills and then how to connect individuals to appropriate care.

The class, taught by Mary Beth Trembley, a psychiatric nurse with 30-plus years of experience, will be held from 8 am – 4:30 pm on Tuesday, October 12, at Redeemer Lutheran Church, 1054 Truman Avenue, Owatonna. The course meets Continuing Education Credits. Among those encouraged to attend are employers, law enforcement officers, hospital staff, first responders, faith leaders, care providers, and anyone, really.

Photographed at the Northfield Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

My friend, the Rev. Kirk Griebel, who completed Mental Health First Aid a year ago and is hosting the upcoming session at his church, agreed to answer several questions about the class. He has served as Redeemer’s pastor for 20 years and, during his time in the ministry, has cared for people in mental health facilities and provided support to the families of those who have committed suicide.

My questions and his answers follow:

Q: You took the Mental Health First Aid course. What prompted you to do that?

A: I first heard about Mental Health First Aid at the opening of an art show. The show was a benefit for a non-profit agency that promoted Mental Health First Aid. When I got home from the show I did some research on Mental Health First Aid and decided it would be a good thing for me to explore. The closest course I could find was in Mankato and then the pandemic hit but with a little perseverance I managed to take the course about a year ago.

Q: What was your biggest take-away from this class?

A: The first thing that comes to mind is one of the Agree/Disagree questions I was asked to respond to during the course: “It is not a good idea to ask someone if they are feeling suicidal in case you put the idea in their head.” If you are concerned about a person’s mental condition and their potential for self-harm it is better to ask a person if they are feeling suicidal than to avoid the topic.

I also learned a number of calming techniques to use for people in crisis. I learned about how to listen non-judgmentally and ways to get people to the appropriate help they need.

Q: How can we, as individuals and communities, best help family, friends and others who are dealing with mental health challenges?

A: Accessing the necessary professional mental health resources and dealing with the stigma of mental illness are two of the greatest difficulties that I see for people facing mental health challenges. So community leaders should make sure that their communities are just as prepared to respond to mental health emergencies as they are to respond to other health emergencies. Mental Health support groups such as those provided by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) are a great way for family members of those who have mental illness to support each other.

Q: What should we avoid saying/doing? What doesn’t help?

A: “Just snap out of it”, “Pull yourself together,” or “Here we go again” should be avoided when offering support to those with mental illness. We should also avoid words like “crazy” and “retarded.” Phrases like, “I am concerned about you.” or “Is something bothering you?” are more open-ended and non-judgmental.

Q: If you were to give one reason for taking this class, what would that be?

A: I don’t look at taking the Mental Health First Aid course as a “one and done” scenario. That’s not the way it works with traditional first aid classes either. Mental Health First Aid is an important first step in getting educated about the many facets of mental health and should be followed up with ongoing efforts to become better equipped to offer support to those who struggle with mental illness. Mental health issues are so common these days that everyone, but especially those in care-giving professions, should have at least a basic understanding of this topic.

Photographed along a bike trail in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I hope this post encourages you to consider taking Mental Health First Aid or a similar course and/or to connect with the National Alliance on Mental Illness for information and support. Or to seek professional help if needed. You are not alone, whether you are dealing with mental health issues or you love/care for someone who is facing challenges. The Struggle Is Real.

FYI: To sign up for the October 12 Mental Health First Aid class in Owatonna or for more information, email redeemerowatonna at outlook.com or call 507-451-2720. Registration deadline is Tuesday, October 5. Cost is $90.

Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mental health: A look at stress, distractions & help July 30, 2021

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Part of the sculpture, “Waist Deep” themed to mental health. and outside the Northfield Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2019.

I REACHED UNDER THE SINK, pulled out the garbage container and dumped the flour mixture into the trash. The morning prior, I’d tossed overcooked wild rice.

It’s not like me to waste food. But I’ve been stressed and distracted this week, causing me to lose focus. When preparing Blueberry-Banana Bread this morning, I couldn’t recall whether I’d added baking powder. So into the garbage the flour mix went. On Thursday I was similarly distracted and, while I heard the timer alert me to the rice being done, the grains needed a bit more cooking. Except I forgot. Lucky for me the rice didn’t burn to the point of a smoke alarm sounding.

STRESS & DISTRACTIONS

What’s the point of sharing this? My experiences, minor in comparison to US Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, reaffirm how stress and distraction can affect results. Because my thoughts were elsewhere, I burned the wild rice and couldn’t recall ingredients added, or not, to the flour mix. So I opted to start over and focus on the task. The results were delicious Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish and Blueberry-Banana Bread.

Perhaps Biles wishes she could start over. Or not. She recognized the mental stress and pressure she was feeling and chose to step out of the competition. That shows great personal strength. She chose to put her health first. She chose also to put her team first, realizing she was not at her best. I applaud the honesty, courage and recognition that her health needs to come first. She’s also reopened the discussion on mental health issues faced by athletes. That leads to other discussions about mental health in the general population.

STRONG & BRAVE

Some of the strongest, bravest people and families I know are those who live/deal with mental health challenges. They must not only find ways to cope and live their lives, but also overcome stigma and roadblocks. That can be undeniably difficult. These individuals and families need our compassion, love and support.

I fully expect Biles will have easy access to professional mental health care. Yet, for too many, that is not the case. Finances, lack of providers and more can limit treatment. That is reality.

FOCUSING

As I write this, I feel focused. Writing helps me mentally. And as a woman of faith, prayer helps, too. As does reading my Bible.

I’ve also eaten way too much Blueberry-Banana Bread today. Typically when I’m stressed, I don’t eat much. But there’s something about warm bread that keeps drawing me back to the kitchen…

Between pauses in writing and bites of bread, I still find my mind drifting. To my dear cousin Dawn and family who lost their husband/father/grandfather unexpectedly yesterday due to natural causes. Rich was only 58. The stress that family is experiencing must feel overwhelming. My heart hurts for all of them at their loss.

Because I was thinking of Dawn this morning, I was unfocused in the kitchen. I was also thinking of my son’s upcoming move, which will take him even farther away from Minnesota. My mind brimmed with concern, worry, sorrow and too many distracting thoughts. We all have days, maybe even weeks, when we feel stressed, unfocused.

ABOVE ALL, LISTEN

I hope that when you see someone struggling, you choose to encourage. To show compassion. To understand. To listen. To keep the focus on the friend or family member and not interject your own story, advice or opinions. Bake some Blueberry-Banana Bread or Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish (“casserole”if you live outside Minnesota) to take to and comfort someone. I expect Dawn’s refrigerator is already filled with food from those who love her and her family.

Most of all, simply be there. In a text, a note, a call or in-person. Show you care.

© Copyright 2021 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

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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