Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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.

#

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

 

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.

#

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.

#

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.

#

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

 

The struggle September 16, 2019

 

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL

Those words emblazoned across the back of her red-white-and-blue plaid shirt grabbed my attention. But what did they mean? I assumed the phrase likely referenced immigration issues given the cultural event where I spotted the statement.

But not 100 percent certain, I approached the young woman and asked. The struggle is real refers to struggles with mental health, she said. She battles depression, but is doing well right now, crediting her family for their support. We didn’t talk much. I hugged her, offered words of encouragement and thought how bold of her to publicly voice those words: THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. I wonder if anyone else asked her about the message she wore.

Those words seem so fitting for those who live with mental illness. Think about it for a minute or ten. Say you or a family member are struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar, post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia or any other mental illness. Do you struggle? Do you struggle to get up in the morning, to find a job or go to work, to engage with others? Do you struggle with stigma, with the all too common belief that you can simply snap yourself out of whatever? Do you struggle to find a mental healthcare provider? (There’s a severe shortage here in Minnesota.) Do you struggle to get the meds you need when insurance companies deny coverage? Do you struggle?

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Those words fit.

Thankfully, that struggle is becoming more visible as attitudes change and voices rise. Support groups, such as those offered through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, bring hope and help. But we can do better. We can, as friends and family and communities and churches, show more care for those affected by mental health issues. I mean, how often have you seen a fundraiser to help individuals and families dealing with financial hardships resulting from mental illnesses? Do we send get well cards to individuals who are suffering from a mental illness? Do we bring them or their supporting families hotdishes (otherwise known as casseroles in other parts of the country)? Do we surround and love and support just as we would someone with cancer, for example?

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. Those words fit.

 

 

That leads me to the book, The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954 by Susan Bartlett Foote. A professor emerita in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, she will speak at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 17, at the Owatonna Public Library. I only learned of her book a week ago and sped-read through this detailed historic look at efforts to reform mental health hospitals in Minnesota decades ago.

 

A building on the campus of the former Minnesota Asylum for the Insane, Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2013.

This is not an easy read. It’s emotionally difficult to read of patients who were abused—confined to straightjackets, subjected to lobotomies, tied to toilets, fed gruel, denied very basic human rights… But to read of the Unitarian Church activists, the politicians (notably then-Governor Luther Youngdahl), journalists, healthcare professionals and others who cared and fought for “the forgotten people” also brings hope. They effected change. Yet, some of their work was undone when new politicians took office and societal attitudes shifted. The politics referenced in Foote’s book made me realize how little things change.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.

Foote’s book will be of special interest to people in my community of Faribault, once home to a state-run facility known as The Minnesota School for the Feeble-Minded. In late 1946, a grand jury convened in my county of Rice to investigate alleged abuses at the Faribault school. Jurors found the misuse allegations to be unwarranted, contradicting findings of other outside investigations. Foote’s research is extensive, her book packed with details about the multi-layered challenges of reforming mental health care in Minnesota.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL. As much today as yesterday.

 

FYI:

Check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness website, an invaluable resource.

Visit the blog, Penny Wilson Writes, for an honest look at “the struggle,” including a resource list.

Read this book: Troubled Minds—Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson

© 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.