Raising awareness of mental illness

Posted: Monday, October 06, 2003

Diana Runde, director of the Polaris House in Juneau, is a productive member of the Juneau community. But if she goes without proper treatment for her bipolar disorder, her world falls apart.

"I've gone for months without being able to leave the house, sometimes unable to get out of bed," Runde said. "That's very common, and people don't understand that it's based on a disease."

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, causes severe shifts in a person's mental state. Severe mental illnesses collectively affect one in five Americans.

Runde and other members of Juneau's mental health treatment community will spend this week - National Mental Health Awareness week - spreading the word in Juneau on mental illnesses.

The week's activities begin at noon today with a march from the Capitol to the Glory Hole and then to the Green House, a drop-in facility operated by the Juneau Mental Health Alliance Inc. on the second floor of the Miner's Mercantile Mall in downtown Juneau, said Susan Phipps, a volunteer for the Polaris House.

The activities are "a tremendous opportunity to join a national movement," said Phipps.

The Polaris House is a drop-in support center for people recovering from mental illness and substance abuse, which often accompany each other. People who use the center's resources also help in the center's operations.

On Tuesday, free screening for depression will be offered at JAMHI's Salmon Creek facility.

"When you're first feeling extremely depressed, you don't really know what's happening and you think it's your fault and there's something the matter with you," said Pat Murphy, clinical director at JAMHI. "You're not aware of the resources. Talking to someone and doing the screening is a way to get help."

The Juneau Alliance for Mental Health serves 650 patients, Murphy said. With treatment, the nonprofit organization's clients can function normally in society.

People who suffer from mental illness without seeking help, though, can be in serious danger. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 90 percent of people who kill themselves suffer from a severe mental illness.

Other results of untreated illness include substance abuse and a significantly higher risk for heart attacks and diabetes, said Runde.

Common mental illnesses include severe depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

"There's no grade of what's the best or worse mental illness to have, because it changes your life no matter what," said Phipps, who suffers from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

JAMHI offers diagnosis and treatment of those and other disorders on a sliding pay scale. People who earn less than $11,000 per year will pay for only 3 percent of their treatment's costs, Murphy said.

Knowledge of mental illnesses has grown significantly in the last 10 years, he said.

"People realize that it touches many of our lives," he said. "There's a lot less fear about that. People are getting to realize that it's an illness just like any other illness. ... This is just a way to continue that positive movement toward people being less fearful, more educated and more supported."

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