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Here's to You: Community acceptance and mental health

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May is Mental Health Month. Here are a few ideas to ponder about mental health in our community.

Across a one-year time span, one in four Americans will have a diagnosable mental disorder according to the National Institute for Mental Health. In Beltrami County, that means about 11,000 people. Who do you know in your community with symptoms of mental illness? A first thought may be of someone with unusual behaviors on the street. Then a distant or close family member may come to mind. However, even if you include all possible people, you may only count 25, 50, or 100 people. Where are the other 10,900? I'm going to suggest that those 10,900 people are trying to cope by telling the fewest people possible. Why? Mental illness is not well accepted in our community.

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Clients through the Hope House program recently discussed the challenges of being and feeling accepted in the community. Some do feel accepted. They report that people talk to them and like them for who they are. They are able to meet many people and feel respected and close to others. Their accepting community is nonjudgmental, happy, welcoming, understanding and kind.

Others have had painful experiences with community acceptance. "People always ask where I work. I'm on disability and don't work, so right away I'm different. When I tell people that I don't work, then they don't have much to say." Another person said, "People lump me in with anyone with a disability. They don't realize that I'm intelligent." Another commented, "I'm treated like I'm weak. They leave me out of important conversations, like I can't handle it." Another said, "People are afraid. I've never done anything to anyone and never would, but when I told the neighbors I had mental illness, they didn't want me around their kids."

Clients in these discussions report that if they were accepted in the community they would open up more, not be ashamed of their problems, be more relaxed, initiate contact with people and be less mistrustful of other's motives.

How can we help our community be more accepting of people with mental illness? How can we make it OK to talk about? Just as a person might say, "I'm here at the clinic to get my blood pressure checked," wouldn't it be great if people could say, "I'm here at the clinic to have my antidepressant medication checked?"

In the discussions at Hope House, some thought the best approach was to avoid telling others about their illness, let them get to know other aspects and figure out the mental illness over time. Others suggested getting to know people individually. The community member may also have mental illness and just isn't talking about it. Another suggested tapping into people's emotions, such as through art, to help them be more accepting.

If you would like to challenge your perceptions about mental illness, I encourage you to come to the Bemidji Public Library from 3-5 p.m. Friday, June 3. A group of Hope House clients will show and sell their paintings and a book they've written, "Here and Not Forgotten." Excerpts from the book will be read at 3:30 p.m. The show will run for the month of June. It is a chance to change your view of people with mental illness, and perhaps become more accepting. We invite you to join us.

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Robin Wold is executive director of Hope House.

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