Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Mental Illness: 'the scourge of our time' - published in the Intelligencer, Bucks Co, PA October 19, 2016

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) started its Mental Illness Awareness Week (earlier this month) “to inform the public that mental illness is a serious subject, not to be taken lightly,” said volunteer Amira Aburida of the Washington, D.C.-based agency.

It also aims to “correct negative stereotypes about those diagnosed with mental illness,” she continued.

Not easy.

Mark is a member of New Directions, the support group I founded in 1986, after my own bipolar diagnosis. “I got frustrated with having abilities but kept undermining them with my illness,” said Mark, who, because of the stigma against the mentally ill, is using a pseudonym. Mark fought taking meds for years.

Now at 30, Mark is a new man, in his last semester at a Philadelphia university, where he will graduate soon with top marks. He credits his psychiatrist, who is always available to him.

“Routine, diet, working out and medicine all fit together into a new, promising system that allows me to thrive,” he said. “This fragile web requires immense work, but the results are incredible.”

An estimated 26 percent of Americans ages 18 and older, or about one in four adults – 58 million people — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety is the top disorder.

Support groups like ours are safe places to freely discuss what’s on your mind without fear of judgment: good doctors, jobs, relationships, the high cost of meds, side effects, problems with insurance. Though many are tempted, it’s best not to disclose your illness at work.

What about the people who self-medicate with alcohol or illegal drugs to get them through the day? New Directions, now in our 30th year, has seen hundreds of these suffering men and women who only want to feel “normal.”

Support groups are invaluable for them, too. Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935 by a stockbroker and a surgeon, has helped millions. Many addicts have been driven to the brink of suicide, unable to escape the maze of shame, family break-ups and the high cost of drugs.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. If someone is at risk for suicide in our group, we set up a “call team” until the “urge” to kill oneself has passed.

It works.

Psychiatrist Cherian Verghese, M.D., of Keystone Clinical Studies in Norristown, believes that “with good research and collaboration from the laboratory to the doctor’s office, we will be able to find treatments for many conditions for which we do not have any medications at present.”

At Keystone, he conducts “clinical trials of medications for psychiatric and neurological conditions, in accordance with FDA guidelines.”

Another psychiatrist, Herbert Pardes, M.D., of the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, calls mental illness “the scourge of our time.”

Few would disagree, particularly loved ones who must learn to cope with their relative’s desperate condition, many of whom refuse to get help. Dr. Pardes said “two-thirds do not get the treatment they need.

“Everyday,” he continued, “we hear about a rise in heroin addiction ... and increases in depression and anxiety among children and adults.

“Clearly, mental illness is a major international problem with devastating consequences,” he continued, “and more can be done to help millions of people around the world.”

Randy, a photographer and member of New Directions, said that no medication has ever helped him. An active man, as are many whose depressions linger, he went to a new psychiatrist and sought a different type of treatment.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) works by pumping magnetic impulses into various parts of the brain. “It sounds like woodpeckers tapping on my skull,” said Randy. He gets treatments five days a week and his depression has begun to lift. The only way he can tell — and he still has more treatments ahead — is that his productivity has increased.

We live in a stressful world. Combat stress by exercising. Nothing is easier than taking a walk. The new Pennypack Trail, which runs from Huntingdon Valley to Lorimer Park in Abington, offers splendid views, including meandering creeks, trees of all varieties and fellow walkers, often with their dogs on leashes or pushing baby carriages.

Occasionally, walkers will congregate to view deer or flocks of quacking ducks sailing peacefully across Pennypack Creek.

Sights, sound, stimulation. Something we all need. So rejoice and glory in the autumn of the year.

Ruth Z. Deming is a psychotherapist in private practice and founder/director of New Directions Support Group of Abington and Willow Grove. View meeting schedule and special events at For information, contact 215-659-2366 or

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