Combating the stigma of mental illness

Jeff vonKaenel

Even though she was severely suffering from mental illness, Andrea Hillerman-Crook initially refused to take her medication. As she told the audience gathered at the Changing Attitudes, Changing Lives, Promoting Health and Wellness celebration, even though she was doing dangerous things, like trying to get out of a car going down the freeway, she still had her reasons for refusing medication.

“Because of the stigma of mental illness, despite everything that was happening to me, I did not want to be thought of as being one of the crazy ones,” Andrea told the audience gathered at the Sam Pannell Meadowview Community Center. The goal of this event, hosted by the Sacramento County Department of Behavioral Health Services, was to change how our community treats those with mental illness.

Even during a two-week hospital stay, Andrea refused to take her medication. But then she received a call from her grandfather. He told her that he also had suffered from mental illness, and he also had been hospitalized, but that he had accepted treatment. The treatment had made a difference in his life.

Inspired by her grandfather, Andrea decided to take her medication. It was the first step to receiving treatment, to admitting she had a problem, and to overcoming the stigma of mental illness.

“I lost my 20s,” Andrea told the hushed audience. But since her recovery, she has gained a greater appreciation for everyday life. Beaming with pride and joy, she told us that she was graduating from college this year, that her loving husband was in the audience, and that they are expecting a baby this year. With this news, there were cheers, and I felt a jolt of emotion rush through the audience.

It was a jolt of hope for the one-out-of-four Americans who will suffer from some form of mental illness in their lifetime. A jolt of hope, that treatment can overcome a God-awful disease that has overtaken many lives and made people do things that are out of character. Most importantly, it was a jolt of hope for change in how our community thinks of mental illness.

California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg urged those gathered to imagine a person with a broken arm, who instead of receiving treatment covers up their broken arm with a jacket. He declared, “We can move mental illness out of the shadows. We can treat metal illness like other illnesses.”

Speaking of Darrell Steinberg, it was his Proposition 63, approved by the California voters in 2004, that has brought more than $7.4 billion of support to California mental-health services. These funds are now helping support the campaign to change how we view mental health.

Jolts of hope are rare in life. Let’s not let Andrea and Steinberg’s go unnoticed.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.