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Public Safety

County Targets Mental Illness Myths

Courtesy of San Diego County
County Targets Mental Illness Myths
The recent shooting in Tucson has drawn attention to mental illness. But data from the National Institute of Mental Health finds violence is not typical for people with severe mental illness.

It’s unclear whether or not mental illness played a role in Jared Loughner's alleged shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six other people.

But mental health professionals worry the Tucson shooting rampage will reinforce negative stereotypes about people who are mentally ill.

Wendy McNeill has a deep personal knowledge of the stigma surrounding mental illness. The San Diego resident is a 39-year-old college graduate. She has a good job and she’s been married for eight years.


McNeill also has a severe mental illness.

“I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 19 years old. I had a massive manic episode,” said McNeil.

Mania, or the manic portion of bipolar disease, causes people to act like they’re high on speed for days, weeks or even months. Typical signs of mania include little or no sleep, rapid speech, and hyperactivity, racing thoughts.

McNeill also experienced hallucinations.

“I once thought my front yard was the Garden of Eden and that our ficus tree was the tree of knowledge. I went running around it naked in my front yard,” explained McNeill.


It’s that kind of odd behavior that leads to misconceptions about the mentally ill.

Alfredo Aguirre, director of San Diego County Mental Health, says he’s trying to change those misconceptions.

“What we want to do is change perceptions about mental illness and to communicate that recovery is certainly possible and to address stigma as it relates to mental health challenges,” said Aguirre.

To break through the stigma surrounding mental illness, San Diego County launched a five-year, $8.4 million media campaign called “It's Up To Us.

“It’s a campaign to help all San Diegans talk openly about mental illness. To help them recognize the symptoms and seek help, ” Aguirre said.

The campaign is funded through the Mental Health Service Act - a 2004 voter-approved measure that imposed a 1 per cent tax on California millionaires.

Throughout the county, “Up To Us” ads can be found on billboards, busses, the web, TV, radio and theater screens.

Aguirre says the ads will help people understand who has mental illness and how they can get help.

“When people think of mental illness, they probably think of homelessness. But what we’re trying to do is help people understand it’s in their midst, it’s in their families,” explains Aguirre.

Wendy McNeill recalls that her father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But she said no one in her family talked about it until he committed suicide.

“It was very hush-hush. I never heard the word bipolar. It was always very euphemistic like,” said McNeill, speaking in a whisper. “They would say ‘he has emotional problems’ or ‘he has to take a mental health day.’ ”

Denial is one reason for the stigma surrounding mental health. Another is the fear that a mentally ill person will become violent.

But years of data from the National Institute of Mental Health show people with mental illness are more likely to become victims of violence than perpetrators of it.

Doctor David Folsom is a UCSD family practice doctor and a psychiatrist. He agrees with the findings. Doctor Folsom said that fear of mental illness not only comes from the community, but also from patients themselves.

“Sometimes people who have a mental illness are afraid of admitting it, afraid of what it implies - that is, it’s a very severe problem and that they won’t be able to have a normal life again. And that’s not at all true,’’ said Folsom.

Like diabetes, high blood pressure or other chronic diseases, Dr. Folsom said mental illness could be successfully treated.

“Mental illness is definitely treatable. People can have very full rich meaningful lives despite the fact they have diabetes or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia,” Folsom said.

Wendy McNeill is living proof. After a decade of psychiatric hospitalizations, she said she finally realized she had a treatable disease.

“After taking my medication regularly, I kind of had this revelation that I actually had a mental illness,” explained McNeill.

Since then she’s been treated with medication, therapy and garnered support from family and friends.

McNeill hasn’t been hospitalized in eight years.

“I’m considered kind of a success story,” she said with a smile.

McNeill said she is happy people in San Diego are working to dispel the myths about mental illness and added these words of advice.

“Show people with mental illness respect, this what will erase stigma. Mental illness is something no would choose to have, ” said McNeill.

Erasing stigma by understanding the illness is good plan for the sane and everyone else, said McNeill.

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