Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental 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