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Mental Health Month: Breaking the silence

It’s May and advocacy organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness are encouraging people to talk about mental health. The effort is intended to reduce the stigma and correct misinformation surrounding conditions that affect an estimated six million people in the United States each year — depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and more.

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NAMI suggests that people wear a green ribbon or green clothing as a conversation starter and it provides a link to information and tools for would-be mental health educators at The colorful pages list facts, figures and common misconceptions about mental illness. There’s advice on what to say (and what NOT to say) and a wallet-size, downloadable reminder to guide conversations.

“It’s our mission to get people to stop the silence, share stories and dispel the myths surrounding mental illnesses. The more we talk, the more we understand, and the more we make it ok,” says the Make it OK website. According to practitioners and people living with these conditions, however, the stigmas associated with mental illness still hold sway. In parts of northern Minnesota, such as Lake County, many factors may be responsible for people’s reluctance to talk about and seek help for mental health issues.

“I may know the (therapist) I go to see. I’m going to see them at church, in the grocery store and in the community,” said Human Development Center psychologist Carolyn Phelps Ph.D., of rural or small town residents.

“That makes a difference in places like Two Harbors. If I’m sitting in the waiting room, I may know the person next to me,” she said. Among the elder population the belief in toughing it out or pulling oneself up by the bootstraps may also prevent people from accessing help. The unfortunate result is unnecessary suffering, since mental illnesses are treatable. Seniors are not the only segment of the population that find it difficult to ask for support. Although resources exist for former military service men and women, asking for assistance with mental health concerns may not come easily, said Lake County veterans service officer, Vince Sando.

“You have to talk to people off the record,” he said. “Because of the stigma, they’re not as quick to get help.” The result can be that by the time veterans seek help, “they’re in crisis or near crisis mode,” Sando added. He also noted that some combat veterans don’t necessarily want to talk to a professional; many prefer to talk to someone who can relate to their unique experiences in battle.

“It’s a common frame of reference and it’s important to a lot of people, male and female,” Sando said. “People come into the office to see if there are combat vets available.” There are. Some work at regional centers, others may be just down the block.

“There are volunteers locally and in greater Lake County that would be available,” he said. These vets offer a compassionate ear, support and an understanding of the challenges faced by fellow service members. Without support, problems can multiply, overwhelming the veteran and spilling over into other areas of life.

“People come in dealing with combat memories and that can lead to other problems – substance abuse, marital and family issues and employment issues. One problem leads to another,” Sando said, but the problems aren’t necessarily insurmountable. Options may exist. 

“We can refer them to other sources. We’re here to point them in the right direction,” he said, “I consider those the little victories in a catalog of small victories – to help someone or a family.” The important first step is to ask.

Taking that step was difficult for one local man who asked that his name not be used in this story. A combat veteran, he returned from service carrying a heavy emotional burden.

“I lived with survivor’s guilt,” he said. He tried to cope, but eventually realized that his way of battling the internal demons was hurting his loved ones.

“I know that I scared my family members, especially my mother who saw the fits of uncontrollable blind rage and alcohol abuse,” he said. Along with the guilt he said he also experienced post-traumatic stress, like many veterans do.

“Some guys have dreams…sights and smells can trigger it,” he said, and many report an ongoing sense that danger waits around every corner- a response that was useful for survival in combat, but later interferes with everyday life. It can cause insomnia, nightmares, irritability, explosiveness, an exaggerated startle response and other troublesome issues, according to the NAMI website. These can wreak havoc in the lives of veterans and their families. Unfortunately the veteran may not recognize that his or her struggle is spilling over onto others. That’s why, said Sando, it’s important for family and friends to learn more about post-traumatic stress, its symptoms and where to turn for help. There’s hope.

“It never goes away” said Sando of PTSD, but vets should know that “you can learn to handle it by talking to someone with similar experience,” or to a veterans service officer who can suggest resources.

“More than anything, I want veterans to know that they’re not alone,” he said, and while some are not ready to come forward and talk about their experiences, “if they want to talk, they know where to find me,” he assured.

Phelps has taken her awareness efforts to the air as the host of Speak Your Mind, a program on public television each week. The broadcast includes a panel of mental health professionals who discuss a weekly topic and take questions from viewers via phone, email and text message. She is also the professional consultant for a project dubbed, “Call me Mental,” a partnership between the Human Development Center and Lola Visuals. According to its website,, the goal of the multi-part web series is to “diminish society’s false perceptions of mental illness.” Thus far an introductory video and seven additional accounts have been posted – all stories of people who came forward to talk about their experiences.

By trying to break down the stigma, start a conversation and document the lives of everyday people who live with mental illness, the hope is that those who suffer will find help.

“We’re all affected by mental illness, Phelps said. Although not everyone has a mental health condition, most people know of someone who does, “but when we find that there are treatment options and there’s release from some of these things, it’s huge!” she said.