In my and others’ stories, opportunities to demystify mental illness

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policies affect the daily lives of people throughout our state. Rebecca Lynn Phillips is a published writer, speaker, and mental health advocate.

I was a top achiever a lot of the time growing up. I attended a private Christian school in Topeka, and also signed a book contract with a major publisher in Nashville when I was just 15 years old. I also had a babysitting business and was involved in track, orchestra, choir, and many more musicals and plays. I never thought I would develop a mental illness, let alone schizophrenia.

“schizophrenia?!” I thought to myself when they told me and my mother in a psychiatric hospital in the cold winter of 1994. I thought they were telling me I was stupid and not smart anymore. I thought they were telling me I wouldn’t live up to anything and I might just roll over and die.

Unfortunately, many people end up thinking similar thoughts when they or a loved one is diagnosed with a serious mental illness. It can happen to anyone. I have a schizophrenic friend who attended Mount Holyoke and earned his BA in Political Science and MBA from Baker. Her father was a doctor and they were a close family.

Yes, mental illness can happen to anyone.

However, more often than not, we only hear about mental health when a shooting or something else is horrific and upsetting. Words like “nut,” “psycho,” “crazy,” or “schizophrenic” are often used to describe a bad person.

However, more often than not, we only hear about mental health when a shooting or something else is horrific and upsetting.

I was shot in a national documentary several years ago, and the short film psychologist, Xavier Amador, is being consulted by several powerful organizations and law enforcement to discuss people who end up doing things when they were psychotic.

Amador, who has taught in Colombia and travels the world talking to professionals about communicating with mentally ill people, is a true advocate for the mentally ill. He was an advisor to Bethenny Frankel in New York City. He also had a brother who was schizophrenic, which he talks about in his book, I’m Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help. It helps people learn how to help their loved ones accept treatment even when they don’t think they have a problem.

Many of the hot topics in today’s society relate to mental health and its challenges – from health insurance, such as Medicaid, to housing, to law enforcement, to stigma, to family support. My mom, Claire, helps teach a family support group for local NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The other three ladies who direct the group are brave and merciful. This is exactly what it takes to deal with the issues and challenges that people with mental illness face. Mental illness isn’t bad behavior or disobedience: it’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. And yes, the brain is a physical part of the body. Everything is connected.

Valeo CEO Bill Persinger has one of the biggest jobs in Topeka trying to figure out how to help those in need, many of whom arrive in Valeo uninsured or underinsured at all. With the implementation of KanCare, the three managed care companies that make up Kansas Medicaid, many behavioral health care providers have had to take on the enormous and wonderful challenge of dealing not with one managed care company, but with three. Medicaid cuts haven’t been kind to providers either.

Housing is another huge issue that affects many with serious mental health challenges. Breakthrough House, another Topeka nonprofit, offers several group homes, but what is really needed are about 25 group homes.

Breakthrough House staff do their best to try and help people find shelter. They also have a club in the former Social Security building downtown where customers can come for meals and support. They help them get housing, they help them with their search for a job or go back to school, or they volunteer.

So, is there a cure for people with mental illness? I am a firm believer in healing, but it is more of a recovery journey, not a destination, because there is no cure or magical healing. I continue to participate because without talking about mental illness and its challenges, there can be no understanding of how to provide help and hope.

The third program is a financial management service where customers get help paying rent and other bills. Financial abuse is also a big issue for people with mental illness. Often times it is exploited and abused. I have two friends who have friends that they use for their money and their family’s money.

Recent news about Britney Spears’ status has raised the topic of guardianship, or guardianship, which is when a person with a mental illness has someone to make financial and other types of decisions on their behalf. These relationships can often become abusive.

Another important issue is law enforcement and how police are responding to the mental health crisis. Many police departments have crisis intervention team officers who are trained to learn how to respond to these situations.

I’ve spoken at the annual Topeka CIT internship and shown the documentary I’ve been on for the past eight years, except for the last year. Too often, across the country, officers don’t understand how to communicate with these people in need and in crisis. But the Topeka Police Department is doing a great job.

So, is there a cure for people with mental illness? I am a firm believer in healing, but it is more of a recovery journey, not a destination, because there is no cure or magical healing. I continue to participate because without talking about mental illness and its challenges, there can be no understanding of how to provide help and hope.

As it is Mental Health Awareness Month, each of us needs to ask ourselves, “How can I reach people in need? How can I help end stigma and start the conversation about mental illness?”

By starting a conversation in the family, in a café with friends, or anywhere else, one can dare to pay attention and dare to offer a glimmer of hope. there is hope. There is a way to recover. We just need to open our eyes and be brave. We need to transcend our comfort zone, and take a step outside our door into the great realm of knowledge and compassion.

With its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector amplifies the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your comment, over here.