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Putting Names and Faces on Rural Mental Health Issues

25 June 2000

By Pat Bellinghausen

What Theron Jorgenson remembered most about her trip to Montana State Hospital was the humiliation of being handcuffed by a sheriff's deputy at the local hospital.

"He handcuffed me right in front of everybody," the soft spoken woman told me when I visited her basement apartment. "It was degrading."

Jorgenson said she'd have willingly gone to Warm Springs with the deputy, but he insisted on handcuffing her. She was restrained throughout the flight to Warm Springs in a four-seat airplane and only unshackled after she was inside the state psychiatric hospital building.

She was discharged nine days later.

Jim Jensen showed me the imaginative wooden benches he builds from weathered boards of a dilapidated barn. In his hands, the old wood became new art. He also told me that some people in his hometown call him "Crazy Jim" because of his mental illness.

A young mother worried that the depression that sometimes immobilized her was hurting her child. She cried over the days she couldn't get out of bed to care for her child.

Another mom worried what the neighbors said about her mental illness.

These are a few of the people whom I met as I traveled more than 3,000 miles around the region to learn something of what life is for rural residents who have mental illnesses. This project started nearly a year ago when I received a tremendous opportunity to report on rural mental health. The Carter Center, a nonprofit foundation established by former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, selected me as one of six journalists for a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship in Mental Health Journalism. With travel expenses paid by the Carter Center, encouragement from my adviser, Otto Wahl, a professor of psychology at George Mason University, and lots of support from my editors, Richard Wesnick, Dan Carter and Steve Prosinski, I started collecting bits of information about rural mental health. Over the past eight weeks, I've shared some of what I have learned.

A message I heard often from people who deal with mental illness is that few people truly care about it unless they or a family member are stricken with one of these illnesses. Both consumers (the term preferred by many people who are getting mental health care) and professionals told me that mental illnesses should be treated the same as other serious and chronic illnesses, such as heart disease or diabetes.

Many of the people who poured their hearts out to me didn't want their names or photos in the newspaper. Their concerns are real: Stigma about mental illness, about people with these diseases, even about treatment and mental health care providers, persists while many other stigmas have melted away. I've been told that some people find it more socially acceptable to admit being drug addicts than to admit they are mentally ill.

The good news about mental illness is the new, more effective medicines to manage the most serious illnesses – medicines to correct the chemical imbalances that produce the depression, hallucinations and other symptoms of mental illnesses.

Mental health has been in the news a lot in Montana over the past three years. Much of the news has been bad. The state continues to struggle to devise an effective, efficient way to deliver mental health care and to fund it adequately. What I hoped to accomplish in this series was to help Gazette readers understand more about the people whose lives are changed by the legislation, the budget cuts and the administrative rules.

I am deeply grateful to everyone who shared their perspectives with me, especially the courageous consumers who elected to tell their stories publicly, putting real names and faces to the issues of mental illness. Their openness is step toward the day when it will be normal for everyone to care about good mental health and effective treatment for mental illnesses.

Used with permission of The Billings Gazette. Copyright 2000.

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