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Mental Health Bell Tolls Message of Awareness

21 Nov 2005

By Leigh Woosley

A Tulsa group marks 50 years of progress in the field. Iron chains and shackles that once restrained people in asylums now form the 300-pound Mental Health Bell.

It is the symbol of the National Mental Health Association. Beyond that, the bell tells a story of progress, of society relinquishing its fear-fed prejudice of mental illness.

Strides have been made, but more must occur: That is the message this bell sends as it comes to Tulsa to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the local Mental Health Association.

The bell goes on display Tuesday at the Tulsa Historical Society, 2445 S. Peoria Ave.

The Mental Health Association in Tulsa earned its charter on Dec. 1, 1955, about a year before the bell was cast.

It was a transforming time in the treatment of mental illness.

The nation had recently accepted psychiatry as a legitimate science and brought the federal government into the mental health system with the formation of the National Institutes for Mental Health, which is still in existence today.

Also around this time was the introduction of the first psychiatric drugs, which kept many people with mental illness out of institutions. Mental illness was better understood and accepted than it had ever been, but lobotomies and electric-shock treatments still were done regularly.

And the negative stigma of mental illness continued to loom, as it does to some degree today.

"When we say stigma, I think of it as an egg, and if you crack it open, what runs out is prejudice and discrimination," said Mike Brose, executive director of the mental health association. "Those are the central components of stigma. Since I came here (in 1993), I think across the country we've made a lot of progress around reducing stigma, but I think we have a long way to go in that area."

Five years after the organization began, Carolyn McQueen was assisting electric-shock therapies in a private hospital in New Orleans.

In 1972, she began a 13-year stint as executive director of the group. Electric-shock treatments decreased with the advent of better psychiatric drugs, she said, but the maltreatment and misunderstanding of the mentally ill remained.

McQueen will never forget the words a schoolteacher spoke in 1970, a few years after McQueen went to work with the Mental Health Association in Oklahoma City.

"I took a classroom of students to a (psychiatric) hospital there, and the teacher said, 'But I want to see the cages with the naked people in them,' " McQueen remembered. "And she was serious. Of course, that wasn't taking place then."

Brose first began working as a volunteer at the Mental Health Association when he was a student of social work at Oral Roberts University. He earned his master's degree in social work and worked directly with clients before reuniting with the group in 1993.

"I've become more sensitized to the fact that it's hard for people to pick up the phone and ask for help," he said. "That's why I love being an advocate and reminding people, especially in my profession, that we need to be more sensitive to the people we serve and their struggles with life. That we all have so much more in common than we think."

Twelve years ago when Brose became executive director, the association had six employees and provided housing for 12 people with mental illness. Today it has more than 50 employees and has six facilities where 161 people with mental illness live.

The progress is apparent, but there is much work yet to do, Brose said.

The association plans to add room over the next three years to house at least 100 more people. It has a major commitment to prevention of suicide, which takes almost twice as many lives as homicide each year. The group continues to strengthen its relationship with area youth and its peer-to-peer outreach program, both of which are bellwethers in the state.

And there's always the stigma to battle.

"I hope I'm alive for the day when we can share a mental-health problem and not be judged and not face prejudice and discrimination," he said.

Copyright 2006. Used with permission from Leigh Woosley and Tulsa World.

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