Mental illness conquerable

By Zach Colick
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Health disorders affect more than 54 million in U.S.

Though students may not realize it, every time they walk across campus they pass many people who are mentally ill, said a UA alumnus speaking about suicide and depression last night.

The idea of removing stigmas surrounding such mental health disorders was discussed last night in a free presentation designed to shatter stereotypes and increase awareness about the true nature of the brain.

The presentation, "In Our Own Voice: Living With Mental Illness," featured a video, personal testimonies and discussions about accepting and overcoming mental illness. Two volunteers from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill at the UA led the group.

Scott Harrington and Eric Schumacher from the Southern Arizona alliance shared their personal stories of having a mental illness, their daily struggles and personal victories to a crowd of around 30 people, and said mental illness can be treated through advocacy, education and support for clinical research.

Harrington, a UA alumnus, said a childhood filled with physical, emotional and sexual abuse may have played a key part in his development of depression. School was no cakewalk either for Harrington, who said he often felt rejected in the school setting.

"Every person is at risk," said Harrington, who described his planned suicide by trying to overdose on pills while a student in the School of Pharmacy. "Mental illness strikes people from all walks of life."

After walking away from his attempted suicide, he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital, which helped in his eventual recovery, Harrington said.

But Harrington was far from alone in his struggle with mental illness. More than 54 million Americans have a mental disorder in any given year, and fewer than 8 million seek treatment. Depression and anxiety disorders, the two most common mental illnesses, each affect 19 million American adults annually, according to the National Mental Association Web site.

The group was formed to open doors of discussion and raise awareness of mental illness, said Dana Crudo, president and founder of the UA National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

There are many stigmas surrounding such disorders and providing a place for students to comfortably talk about mental health issues on campus would help clear up those misconceptions, Crudo said.

"I know so many people with mental health disorders and thought it was only right that there be some sort of peer to peer support of it on campus," said Crudo, a journalism and creative writing senior.

Schumacher, who has been diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder since his adolescence, said he took the "if you step on a crack, you'll break your mother's back" joke to heart as a young child and thought something terrible would happen to his family if he actually stepped on any of the cracks.

At one point during high school Schumacher said his OCD got so bad he didn't bathe or leave his house for one year and said sleeping and eating were sometimes impossible as well.

As serious as these incidents were, many doctors misdiagnosed Schumacher and told him they were behavioral problems not associated with mental illness. Counseling and therapy got Schumacher through the tough times, but he said individuals with mental disorders must have a total commitment to find professionals they can trust to find a cure.

"You can either choose to lie down and die and look at it as a curse," Schumacher said, "or you can get up and decide to live and fight and consider it a blessing."

Crudo advised that people who know someone with a mental illness be understanding, caring and compassionate.

"Make sure they know they can come to you, be open to discussing (the illness,) don't judge them and keep an open mind," she said.

The presentation was organized in conjunction with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill at the UA and of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Southern Arizona.