Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Mental illness: Learn. Listen. Link. November 15, 2022

Slowly we are beginning to unmask mental illness. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2018)

HER VOICE RISES. Strong. Compassionate. Without hesitation.

She is Penny Wilson, published poet, blogger, fiction writer, advocate. Penny, who blogs at Penny Wilson Writes, advocates for those diagnosed with mental illnesses. She is open about her struggles with depression. And it is that honesty which impresses upon me how much, how deeply, Penny cares.

From her fixer-up home in a small Texas town, Penny pens pieces that inform, educate, advocate about mental health. Recently she spent hours researching and compiling a list of resources in a post titled “Affordable Mental Health Counseling.” A friend’s need for affordable therapy (when her benefits were running out) prompted the piece. What Penny found was nothing. No low cost or no cost counseling services for mental health issues. I’m not surprised.

Yet, Penny published that list of 14 possible places to find some sort of help. It’s a start, a good resource list. I encourage you to read that compilation by clicking here.

A particularly powerful book that shows how mental illness ripples, affecting the entire family. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

All of this got me thinking given I, too, write occasionally on the subject of mental illnesses. My goal, like my friend Penny’s, is to increase awareness, educate, advocate. I want to use my writing skills to make a difference. Penny and I recognize that we have this gift, this ability to communicate information in a way that connects and perhaps challenges our readers to learn more, to grow in their compassion and care.

Yes, it starts with each of us, individually. Learning. Listening. Acknowledging that depression, anxiety, bi-polar, post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and any host of mental illnesses are hard and challenging and sometimes/often debilitating. Recognition, understanding and support are vital. Not just in words of encouragement, but in action. Individuals and their families need compassionate care.

This book should be in every church library.

I learned recently that Hosanna Church, just up Interstate 35 north of Faribault in Lakeville (and with campuses also in Northfield, Rosemount and Shakopee), won NAMI Minnesota’s 2022 Faith Community of the Year Award for demonstrating extraordinary work and advocacy on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota’s mission. In part, that mission is to champion justice, dignity and respect for all people affected by mental illnesses. To read the full mission statement, click here.

Justice. Dignity. Respect. Pretty basic, yet often overlooked by society, where mental illness still carries stigma.

That a faith community like Hosanna reaches out to individuals with mental illnesses and their families and aims to change public attitudes towards those with mental illnesses shows they care. They get it and they want others to get it, too. They love, listen, act. I appreciate those efforts and I’d like to see more faith communities do the same.

We each hold within us the capacity to learn, listen, link. Learn about mental illnesses. Education goes a long way in reducing stigmas and in understanding. Listen to those who live with mental illnesses (and their families). Ask how they are doing, how you can help and genuinely mean it. Link to them in meaningful ways. Offer help. Connect with professional resources. Be there. It’s that simple. Learn. Listen. Link.

FYI: I encourage you to visit the NAMI website for additional information by clicking here. I also encourage you to visit the “mental health help” page of Penny’s blog at Penny Wilson Writes by clicking here. Also read her recently-posted fictional short story, “Dragons in the Dark,” which offers powerful insights into depression.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Sort of like a broken bone, but not really November 3, 2022

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Look on the lower right side of my wrist to see the surgically-implanted plate, shaped like an ice scraper, and held in place by 10 screws. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2018)

WHEN I BROKE my right shoulder one summer and then a year later shattered my left wrist, I needed physical and occupational therapy. Muscles quickly weakened with my shoulder clamped immobile in a sling and my wrist secured in a splint. After months of in-person therapy and at-home exercises, I regained my strength and use of my shoulder and wrist. I felt grateful for the therapy, which was easily accessible and covered under my insurance (although I ended up paying because of my high deductibles).

I also got lots of encouragement following those bone breaks. Cards. Texts. Emails. Calls. Even some meals delivered. When you’re experiencing a health issue, it’s reassuring to feel the support of others.

Buttons photographed at the Northfield Public Library. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

But what if your health issue is a mental health issue? Do you have the same access to healthcare? Does your insurance plan offer sufficient coverage? How do friends and family respond?

A post, “Help needed—therapy information please” published a few days ago by Texas blogger Penny Wilson, and my personal interest prompted me to write on this topic. Penny is seeking information on affordable mental health therapy for her friend whose benefits are soon ending. She understands. Penny, too, faced the same problem when she needed therapy and her insurance would cover only three sessions. Three. Sessions. Penny writes, “3 sessions didn’t even begin to scratch the surface. After that, I was on my own to figure out how to pay for it.”

I’d like to think the experiences of Penny and her friend are the exception. But I don’t believe that, not for a second. First, unlike my easy access to therapy for my broken bones, accessing mental healthcare is difficult at best. At least in Minnesota. Waits are long, if psychiatrists and psychologists are even taking new patients. That often leaves individuals in a mental health crisis seeking care in an emergency room. Unless the hospital has an on-call mental health professional, this is not necessarily the best treatment option. But when you can’t access care any other way…

Whether insurance adequately covers mental health treatment and therapy seems debatable. For Penny and her friend, obviously not.

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

And then there’s the topic of personal support. Mostly, it’s lacking. Although we’ve made strides in reducing the stigma of mental illness, we have a long ways to go. Ask anyone who’s experienced a mental health crisis, whether directly or indirectly as a family member, and you will likely not hear stories of tangible support. No meals delivered. No cards sent. No texts. No emails. Primarily silence. There are, of course, exceptions.

Beyond the emotional toll, a mental health crisis can devastate individuals and families financially. Yet, there are no public fundraisers. Again, this traces to the stigma, the lack of understanding, not necessarily a lack of compassion.

Mental illness, in my opinion, is not viewed on the same level as say diabetes or cancer or other debilitating diseases. I’m not taking away from anyone who has dealt with those because they are horrible and awful. But so is a serious mental illness. There are no cures, no single plans of treatment that work for everyone. A med may ease symptoms and then it doesn’t and then it’s start over with a different med. The same for therapy. Imagine the exhaustion and frustration that can set in as individuals struggle to manage anxiety, depression, bipolar and more. It’s a lot.

A mental health-themed sculpture, “Waist Deep,” once stood outside the Northfield Library. This is such a strong visual of reaching for help. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2019)

So what’s the point of this post? The point is to educate and raise awareness. The point is to reduce the stigma of mental illness. The point is to encourage you—if you know someone struggling with mental health—to reach out, acknowledge, support. Act. Support their families, too. Offer words of encouragement. Offer financial support if needed. This is their broken bone.

FYI: The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a great resource for information and support. Click here for more information.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Strength & hope October 14, 2022

The Straight River roils by at the dam in Owatonna. I see struggles. I see strength. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

WHAT’S YOUR DEFINITION of strength? Whom do you consider strong? Have you faced a challenge, or multiple challenges, in life that required strength? While our answers vary, especially on the third question, I expect threads of commonality in responses.

Strength, from my perspective, is about fortitude and endurance. It’s about somehow finding the ability to face a challenge, to persevere, to come out on the other side with a renewed sense of personal power. Not power in the sense of control, but power that reaffirms one’s ability to deal with whatever life throws at us.

We all have something, right? Financial hardships. Health issues. Loss. Pain. Family members who are struggling. But, admittedly, when we are in the middle of a lot, it can sometimes feel like we are alone, that others live perfect lives unencumbered by issues that drain, stress and, yes, sometimes overwhelm. Nothing could be further from the truth. I repeat: We all have something, whether individually or within our families. We are not alone.

(Cover image from Goodreads)

The novel, Three Sisters by Heather Morris, prompted me to write on the topic of strength. Although fictional, the book is based on a true story about three sisters held in a concentration camp. This is a story of indescribable atrocities witnessed and experienced. This is also a story of irrepressible strength and hope. I encourage you to read this novel and also watch Ken Burns’ newest documentary, “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” which happened to air at the same time I was reading the book. Together, the two were almost too much for me to emotionally take in. It’s a lot to comprehend the inhumanity and cruelty of mankind. Those sent to concentration camps certainly exhibited strength, whether they survived or not.

The iris symbolizes hope. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2021)

In reading Three Sisters, I learned that gladiolus (the flower) signify strength. And the iris, which is part of the glad family, denotes hope. The iris was my mom’s favorite flower. “Hope” is a word I’ve held, and continue to hold, close. “Hope” is not simply a wish. By my definition, it is an active verb that focuses on light shining through darkness. It is a word, too, that envelopes gratitude and believing that things will get better.

I keep this stone on my office desk. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

My name, Audrey, means noble and strong. I wish I’d asked my mom why she chose that name for me, her first-born daughter. I never did, and now she’s gone, but the name fits. I’ve had to be strong many times throughout my life. We all have something, right? Challenges can make us better, more empathetic and compassionate people. That is the good that arises from struggles.

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

This week, especially, with World Mental Health Day on October 10, I consider mental health. From anxiety to depression to brain disorders like bi-polar and schizophrenia, these are undeniably hard diagnoses which require incredible strength to face. Simply getting up in the morning, functioning, can prove difficult. There are no cures. No quick fixes. Medication can manage, therapy can help. And even though we are getting better at recognizing and understanding, stigma remains. We can do better at supporting, encouraging, helping. We need more mental health professionals to meet the growing demand for mental health care.

Strength. Hope. Those two words inspire and uplift. Gladiolus and iris. Those two flowers represent the same. From the pages of a novel about three Holocaust survivors to my name to life experiences, I understand what it means to be strong, to feel hope.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear your thoughts on strength and hope.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A crisis: In memory of all the Jordyns & Kobes August 12, 2022

A rural Rice County, Minnesota, cemetery. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo used for illustration only)

NOT AGAIN. My reaction zipped in a flashpoint of disbelief over yet another young Minnesota man shot and killed by police while experiencing a mental health crisis.

The latest to die is Jordyn Hansen, 21, formerly of Faribault. He recently moved to Otsego in the northwest metro to live with an aunt and uncle. There, according to his aunt who was interviewed by a reporter from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, they hoped Jordyn could recover away from a previous lifestyle that amplified his mental health challenges. He had a history of mental illness and substance abuse and had been in treatment.

When Jordyn experienced another crisis early Sunday morning, his family members called police. Narratives of what happened after law enforcement arrived are vastly different. The police say one thing, the family another. In the end, the family seeking help for their loved one is now attending a funeral, which will be held this morning at my church in Faribault.

I didn’t know Jordyn or his family. Nor do I know the family of Kobe Dimock-Heisler, a 21-year-old man on the autism spectrum who was shot and killed by Brooklyn Center police in 2019.

Both cases involved families seeking help in a crisis. Both involved police response. Both involved knives and tasers and six gunshots that killed two young men. Each only 21 years old, with families and friends who loved them.

I could cite many similar cases, but I’ll leave it at that as I process how upset I feel about the deaths of Jordyn and of Kobe. I can’t put myself inside the heads of responding police officers. Nor was I there to witness what unfolded during each emergency. But I can, as a mother and community member, express my deep concern for this ongoing loss of life among those experiencing a mental health or other crisis. Why does this keep happening? And how can we “fix” this so no family member has to worry about their loved one being shot and killed when they call for help?

Jordyn’s family has started a gofundme fundraiser to help cover his funeral expenses. The goal is $10,000. Jason Heisler, Kobe’s father, donated $21 to the cause. I assume he chose that amount because both his son and Jordyn were 21 at the times of their deaths. It should be noted here that the National Alliance on Mental Illness defines autism as the following: Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental condition that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate with others. Consider that when you think of Kobe, who was on the autism spectrum.

Jason Heisler left (in part) this powerful comment on Jordyn’s gofundme site: …preventable should of never happened to this beautiful boy and his family. A mental crisis is not a crime.

Let me repeat that: A mental crisis is not a crime.

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I am grateful to the many professionals, individuals and organizations (like the National Alliance on Mental Illness) that are working hard to improve mental healthcare and the response to those in a mental health crisis. Through education, training, advocacy, understanding, awareness, compassionate response and intervention, change is happening. Yet, the pace of change feels too slow. A key component in all of this is listening and communication. The approach to individuals in a mental health crisis needs to be thoughtful. A shift in attitudes to recognize that mental health is health should be the standard, not the exception.

I encourage you to help cover Jordyn’s funeral expenses by donating via his gofundme page or giving directly to his family. Thank you.

© Copyright 2022 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

 

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