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Conference aims to give hope to people with mental illness

It's about hope and education, Ginger Spiess said. That's why the Carlton County Local Advisory Council hosted a conference on mental illness last Thursday at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.

"A lot of people want to learn about recovery," said Spiess, who serves on the advisory council and is supervisor of the Outreach Center in Cloquet. "But folks really appreciated the keynote speaker talking about hope. Sometimes hope is elusive in cases of mental illness, but a lot of people told me they left feeling hopeful."

Before talking about the reasons to be optimistic about the future of mental health care during last week's conference, psychologist and keynote speaker Dan D'allaird rattled off a shocking list of facts about mental illness in this country:

- Every year, one in four American adults suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder. About one in 17 adults suffers from a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder. Every year about 20 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds suffer from a mental health problem and about 13 percent of 8- to 13-year-olds suffer from one.

- Of these sufferers, about one-half seek treatment.

- Nine million Americans suffer from both mental health and substance abuse problems. Kathleen Sibelius, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, recently wrote that "nearly 90 percent of people with substance use disorders don't receive the care they need."

- Approximately 20 percent of individuals in local and state prisons have a recent history of mental health problems.

- Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It is more common than homicide. It is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds. Military veterans -- who comprise less than 1 percent of the American population -- represent 20 percent of these suicides. On an average day, 18 veterans take their life.

- Worldwide, four of the 10 leading causes of disability are mental health problems. In developed countries, major depression is the leading cause of disability in terms of total work years lost due to disability. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are also in the top 10.

- People with serious mental illness have a life expectancy 25 years lower than average.

- Locally, despite the committed and professional efforts of many people, there is a shortage of providers at virtually every level of treatment. Wait times for psychiatric services regularly run into months, regular sessions with a therapist can be hard to establish and maintain, and the demand for out-of-office services regularly outstrips capacity.

It was a sobering list.

Then D'allaird compared the way a person who fractures a bone in the U.S. will seek and receive treatment versus someone with a mental illness.

In most cases of a broken bone, he noted, the injured person will quickly realize that he or she is hurt and express that thought to others. Normally, a visit to the doctor or emergency room follows and treatment commences without much delay.

Then he embarked on another list, this one comparing a fracture to issues a person with a mental illness might have to face. Among them:

+ others second-guessing the diagnosis, treatment, or your desire to seek treatment;

+ coping with your own second-guessing and self-doubt about the same;

+ wondering whether a lack of will power or a character flaw led to the [mental illness/fracture] or a desire for professional help;

"Three times as many people struggle with depression than fracture a bone," he said, "but [people with mental illness] face many more hurdles."

Despite the many challenges faced by people with mental illness, D'allaird said he remains optimistic.

"Our understanding of the origin and treatment of mental health problems is increasing daily," he said. "There's a new diagnostic manual coming out soon, which helps identify [mental illness] and proper treatment. We are tailoring treatments to particular characteristics of individual sufferers, and moving away from a one-size-fits-all style of treatment."

Other reasons for hope include increasing insurance coverage for treatment of mental illness, the new federal "Brain Initiative" which will funnel billions into interdisciplinary brain research, unprecedented peer support opportunities rather than only getting treatment in an office setting, better and more affordable access to medicine, better understanding of the link between physical and mental health and a more holistic way of treating a person with mental illness, among others.

"How we are resilient, flourish despite hardships, bounce back from adversity, recover from episodes of mental health problems, translate our desire and will to overcome our problems into positive results: positive psychology is helping us understand these factors better than ever," he said.

It is, he said, a more hopeful way of treating mental illness.