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'It's all in your mind'

Community takes a stand against mental-health stigma

Community takes a stand against mental-health stigma

May 05, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

It took 30 years for Donna Fitzgerald Rapp, 50, of Hagerstown, to determine that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.

Rapp has major depressive disorder with psychotic features.

Even when loved ones told her that there was no such thing as mental illness, that it was all in her head, that her attempts at suicide were cruel cries for attention, Rapp was able to overcome the hurt.

But today one challenge remains - stigma.

Mental health sufferers say they have yet to experience the same level of social tolerance enjoyed by people with visible disabilities. Instead, people with mental illnesses are identified by their mental disorders, said Tom Kline, project coordinator for the Washington County Community Partnership for Children & Families.

On Friday, May 9, the Washington County Community Partnership for Children & Families will host a free community workshop on stigma. The workshop, at Elgin Station Community Center, is part of a statewide effort known as the "Anti-Stigma Project" and will be the first of three seminars in Washington County, Kline said.

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The seminars are open to people with mental illness, family members and health professionals - to any one affected by mental illness.

"We want to normalize mental illness, show that people with mental health disorders are just like everybody else," Kline said.

People with mental illness view their conditions in the same way people look at diabetes or heart disease.

"It's something that can be treated," said Connie Pauley, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Washington County affiliate.

But society is slow to get the message.

"Say the words 'mental illness' and people think of the Unabomber and the Virginia Tech shooter - the few who were violent and didn't take their meds," Rapp said.

About one out of every four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, according to National Institute of Mental Health data. Mental disorders can include depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety.

But only 6 percent of mental illness sufferers, about one in 17, have a serious mental disorder, according to the NIMH.

Mary Beth Twigg and her daughter, Casey Logsdon, sought out the Office of Consumer Advocacy, a state-funded nonprofit agency serving people with mental disorders. The Office of Consumer Advocacy has offices in Hagerstown and in Garrett and Allegany counties.

Twigg and Logsdon have bipolar disorder. They live in Cumberland, Md., but they work at the Office of Consumer Advocacy's Hagerstown office.

"I get very underestimated," said Logson, 21. Logson also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

When she was in school, teachers would call her "bad." Onlookers thought she needed discipline. "That she needed a good spank on the bottom," said Logson's supervisor, Ethel Nemcek, executive director of the Office of Consumer Advocacy.

Today, as a trained professional, Logson has developed a pilot self-directed care program for people with mental disorders.

Her mother is a program coordinator at the same office.

"People think you can't have a mental illness and function, (that) you can't have a job," Twigg said.

For years, Rapp's mental illness went untreated.

As a child, she was told by loved ones that if only she would stop acting so temperamental and spoiled, she would be happier, and that if she prayed and looked to God, it would all go away.

As a teenager, she was told that the reason that she tried to kill herself was because she wanted attention. Rapp said she had tried to commit suicide several times.

It wasn't until Rapp was 30 years old that she sought proper treatment. It's only been within the last 10 years that Rapp has truly accepted her illness.

Today she is an advocate for others who suffer from mental illness. Sometimes, she finds herself combating stereotypes, one person at a time. When it comes to fighting stigma, she says there's still along way to go.

"When I tell people I have a mental illness, they say, 'You don't look like somebody with a mental illness,'" Rapp said.

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