Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

When life overwhelms August 20, 2021

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Drought-cracked earth near the Turtle Pond, River Bend Nature Center, Faribault, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2021.

THERE ARE DAYS when I feel such frustration. It’s then I remember the words of my mom, clearly frustrated with six misbehaving offspring.

“You kids make me so mad I could just run, run, run,” she declared. That grabbed our attention because Mom, one of the sweetest and most loving individuals I’ve ever known, seldom lost her patience with her three sons and three daughters. And, despite her threat, she never ran.

Oh, what I would give for my mom to make that threat today. But she can’t run. She can’t even walk. She’s confined to a wheelchair, living in a nursing home. Physically, she’s still with us, although we, her grown children, have been separated from her more than with her during this pandemic.

So perhaps I am grieving more than feeling frustrated.

I’m also feeling overwhelmed. Everything that could go wrong in the world seems to be happening. Raging pandemic. Check. Floods. Check. Wildfires. Check. Drought. Check. Hatred and division. Check. Politicizing everything. Check. Selfish behavior. Check. People in Afghanistan fleeing for their lives. Check. Shootings/murder every single day, night and day. Check. Injustices. Check. I expect I’ve missed something.

I cannot recall a time in my 60-something years of life that we were dealing, simultaneously, with so much as a state, a country, a world. And that can leave a person feeling, well, overwhelmed.

How do you deal with all of this? I try to remind myself that we will get through this. Somehow. I find myself connecting to my faith in a deeper and more intense way. I do what I can to uplift and encourage others. I read. Something other than news; books that take me away from reality. A friend also reminded me to hold onto my focus word: hope. There’s a lot to be said for hope.

Another friend offers practical suggestions in a blog post, “Doing What You Can & Your Personal Well-Being,” on Penny Wilson Writes. Please take time to read Penny’s tips by clicking here. Although I’ve never met this Texas blogger, I feel such a connection to, and appreciation for, her. She writes with empathy, compassion and understanding. She genuinely cares. She’s authentic. Honest. Penny, also a gifted poet, has written often about her struggles with depression. That openness, I expect, has helped many. She also shares the work of other bloggers, including me, with untethered passion and joy.

People like Penny give me hope. She uses her writing talents, her experiences and more to encourage, uplift and inspire others. She helps me tamp down the urge to rage and, then, to run, run, run. And for that I feel gratitude.

© 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

 

Hope, help & tragedy in Faribault July 22, 2021

I photographed this woman’s shirt at a public event in Northfield. The message refers to struggles with mental illness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

IF YOU’VE FOLLOWED my writing long enough, you understand my dedication to increasing awareness on two important issues—domestic violence and mental health.

This week, both made headlines in my community. I can’t let this opportunity slide without sharing what’s happened/is happening in Faribault. We need to stay informed, to choose awareness over sticking our heads in the sand. Understanding leads to action and, perhaps, saving lives.

First the really good news for Faribault and the surrounding region (according to the Faribault Daily News): Our local hospital, District One, and Rice County Social Services are collaborating on new adult outpatient mental health services. The hospital, part of Allina Health, will offer a day treatment program and a partial hospitalization program for adults dealing with mental illnesses. Social services will provide referrals.

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

To say I am thrilled is an understatement. This is so needed in Rice County and the surrounding rural areas. Our access to mental health care, especially during or following a crisis, is limited. Waiting time to see a psychiatrist, if that doctor is even accepting new patients, can be up to six weeks. Can you imagine waiting six weeks if you were experiencing a heart attack? You would likely die. Individuals facing mental health issues—from depression to anxiety to bipolar to schizophrenia and more—deserve, and need, immediate access to local care. As do their families.

To get treatment and support locally, rather than traveling to the Twin Cities metro, will ease some of the stress during an already stressful situation. Even with this improvement in services, though, we really need more mental health professionals to alleviate the shortage and meet the area’s needs.

Stress, while a bit of a buzzword, is part of life. And this week my community feels especially stressed by a murder-suicide, which left a 32-year-old woman dead, allegedly shot by her 27-year-old boyfriend, who then killed himself. It’s devastating. Two young people dead in an apparent act of domestic violence.

A mosaic on the exterior of the Faribault Chamber of Commerce & Tourism office honors employee Barb Larson, murdered there on December 23, 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

My heart breaks every time I read of such murder-suicides, or any act of domestic violence. Shortly before Christmas 2016, Barb Larson was shot and killed by her ex-husband, who then took his own life, in a high profile case in Faribault. She worked for the local tourism office. He was a retired police officer. That crime shook Faribault to its core.

Likewise, I expect the murder of Amanda Schroeder on Monday evening is prompting similar angst. And increasing awareness of the ongoing crime of domestic violence. HOPE Center, which advocates for victims of domestic and sexual violence, is already reminding the community that advocates are available to listen, help and support. 24/7.

In both of these situations—domestic abuse/violence and mental health crises—people are here to help. I feel thankful to live in a community that cares. No one ever needs to feel alone, to face life’s challenges and stresses solo.

Warning signs of domestic abuse/violence from a previous community event on the topic. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I know Amanda tried. She called 911. To make that call took strength and courage. Still, she died. If Amanda’s death can save one life, can result in one person safely leaving an abusive partner, then something positive has come from this tragedy.

Where does all of this leave us as individuals? I encourage you to educate yourself on domestic abuse/violence and mental illness. Then take that knowledge and show your care and compassion to those who need it. To those experiencing challenges. And their families. Listen. Support. Encourage. Refer to professionals. Be that person who chooses not to ignore, but rather to be there. To engage. To understand. To uplift. To care.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When life comes unglued, a Minnesota family’s experience June 23, 2021

HE AROSE FROM HIS CHAIR, lost. I watched him stagger and collapse on Sarah’s chair, plunging his head into his big sister’s chest.

As that scene unfolds on page 297 of Unglued—A Bipolar Love Story by Minnesotan Jeffrey Zuckerman, I cried. I cried at the deep heartache adult siblings Joey and Sarah experience when learning of their mother Leah’s attempted suicide. I cried at the pain. I cried at the challenges Leah faces in living with bipolar disorder. I cried for those inside and outside my circle who have lost loved ones to suicide, who live with serious mental illnesses, who are brave beyond words.

Tears cleanse, releasing pain and emotions.

I feel grateful to freelance editor and writer Zuckerman for sharing his family’s story, which increases awareness, understanding, and, most importantly, offers hope.

HEART-WRENCHING HONESTY

Zuckerman writes about his wife’s “broken mind” with an honesty that is simultaneously heart-wrenching and beautiful. Although at times he literally runs away, his love for her endures and he never gives up. He never gives up through the manic episodes, the rage, the hurt, the personality changes, the exhaustion, the anhedonia (lack of feelings), the sleepless nights, the hospitalizations, the efforts to find the right medications that will help…

Through all of it, he learns. He begins to understand, to see bipolar disorder for what it is, a medical illness. He sees, too, the stigma, and he begins to open up. To neighbors. To friends. And also to those in a National Alliance on Mental Illness support group. He writes: It’s hard to explain just how listening to my story with grace and without judgment was exactly the help I needed.

THE 3 Cs

I listened to his story, taking notes as I read Unglued. Although I feel fairly informed about brain disorders like bipolar disorder, I find myself acquiring new knowledge every time I read personal stories like that of the Zuckerman family. This marks the first time I’ve read a book written from a spouse’s perspective. Even through the most difficult days, Jeff loves Leah and comes to realize that he didn’t cause her illness, nor can he control or cure it. He recognizes, too, that he must care for himself if he is to be of any help to his wife of 30-plus years.

SEPARATING THE INDIVIDUAL & THE ILLNESS

Theirs is a love story marked not only by loss and grief, but also by forgiveness, by strength and resilience. Zuckeman is able to see Leah, the individual, and not Leah the illness, first. From her, he learns to be more tolerant and less selfish.

Through his storytelling, this gifted Minneapolis writer personalizes bipolar in relatable and ordinary ways. Half-way through Unglued, he writes about stopping with Leah at Ben and Jerry’s for Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream before returning her to a psych ward. After 25 days of hospitalization, Leah is discharged and, writes Jeff, they begin gluing back together her life…and their long, fractured marriage. And that glue is love.

RESOURCES & HELP

FYI: If you or someone you love is considering suicide, get immediate professional help. Resources include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also offers a helpline at 1-800-950-6264. Many resources are available through NAMI, including support groups for those dealing with mental health issues and their families.

Above all, care. Listen. Support. And continue to love.

AWARD-WINNING BOOK

Unglued was named a finalist for the 2020-2021 Minnesota Book Award, among other honors.

© 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

 

The struggles behind the wall March 4, 2021

An edited snippet of the book cover for Behind the Wall, a powerful book about mental illness.

SOMETIMES IN LIFE, moments present that forever imprint upon one’s mind.

Like the Sunday morning I walked out of church after the pastor termed Vincent van Gogh “crazy” in his sermon. The artist wasn’t “crazy.” He suffered from mental illness. Delusions. Psychosis. Depression. The next morning, after I calmed, I phoned my pastor and we discussed his word choice and why I found that offensive.

On another occasion, while sampling craft beer in a small town southern Minnesota brewery, I noticed a customer with the name of a nearby brewery printed on the back of his jacket. Lost Sanity Brewing. As if that name wasn’t bad enough, the business logo—a straightjacket—proved even more insensitive.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2019.

But then there was the day I spotted this message blazoned across the back of a shirt worn by a young woman attending a cultural event at the Northfield Public Library: THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. When I approached her, she shared how she lives with depression and how her family has loved and supported her through her struggles.

Encounters like that in Northfield give me hope. Hope that we’re making progress in erasing the stigma of mental illness. Hope that we’re raising awareness. Hope that people will become more understanding and compassionate. Hope that carelessly tossed words like “crazy” and images of straightjackets will vanish.

I highly recommend this book to every one of you. It’s a must-read insider view of individuals and their families struggling with mental illness.

I admire that strong young woman in Northfield who, through the message on her shirt, spoke truth. THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Those struggles unfold in a particularly powerful book, Behind the Wall—The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents. This book is a compilation of real-life experiences shared by parents of mentally ill adult children in their own words. Compiled by Mary Widdifield and Elin Widdifield, it’s an honest and often heart-wrenching look at the struggles these families face.

Behind the Wall is not an easy read. But it shouldn’t be. There’s nothing easy about depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or any mental illness/brain disorder. These stories are deserving of our time, focus and attention. When you read these stories, you will feel the pain, experience the challenges, grieve the losses, encounter the frustrations, hold the worry and, hopefully, come away with a deeper understanding of mental illnesses. You will see, perhaps for the first time, the struggles that are all too real for many individuals and their families.

And you will see, too, incredible strength, resilience, determination and hope.

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IF YOU OR A LOVED ONE are struggling with your mental health, seek professional help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is also a great resource for information and support. Click here to learn more.

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Thanks to my friend, Beth Ann Chiles, who gifted me with Behind the Wall. You can read her review of the book by clicking here on her “It’s Just Life” blog.

© Copyright 2021 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