I remember the days when if the diagnosis of breast cancer was brought up, there was a hush in the room. It was kept a secret. Now we have a very successful public walk, Steppin’ Out in Pink, where thousands of people wear pink, advocate to create awareness and raise money for breast cancer research. Professional athletes even wear pink shoes.

Will we ever look at mental illness with the same openness, compassion and lack of judgment?

May is Mental Health month, and in recognition, I ask all of us to reflect on our own attitudes and beliefs about those who suffer from mental illness. Just imagine a community that is unafraid of mental illness. Imagine a community where a conversation about it is met, not with whispers, but with compassion.

On behalf of the Mental Health Coalition of Greater La Crosse, whose mission is to improve the quality of life for individuals and families who live with the effects of mental illness, let’s embrace compassion. It is the intent of the coalition to address the stigma that surrounds mental illness which leads to the isolation of so many people and to break down the barriers that prevent individuals with mental illness from receiving the treatment they deserve.

Consider these facts as they certainly point to the need to keep the focus on issues related to mental illness. It is estimated that one in four adults will experience a mental health disorder in a given year and suicide is America’s 10th leading cause of death. And, as we seek to address stigma, here’s an eye-opening fact. More than 80 percent of the people who have symptoms of clinical depression are not receiving any specific treatment for their depression. Studies have shown that one of the key barriers for people not seeking treatment is the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

The issue is personal for me. Our family has been profoundly touched by severe anxiety, depression and significant mood swings. But we choose not to hide. We speak openly about it in an attempt to normalize mental illness. Let’s quit talking about mental illness as if people who suffer from it choose it. Mental illness isn’t just a bad choice.

Mental illness affects an entire family. The devastating effects can destroy families and shatter dreams if you let it. If you had a loved one who was suffering from diabetes or cancer or heart disease, wouldn’t all of us do whatever is possible to help? Wouldn’t we deal with that loved one with compassion?

There’s a poster I just love and I feel gives us clear moral direction. It’s a picture of a young man and Jesus sitting on a park bench. The young man asks Jesus, “Why do you allow all the suffering in the world?” Jesus replies, “Interesting that you should bring that up as I was about to ask you the exact same question.”

I feel we all have a moral responsibility to reach out to the most vulnerable people in our community, including those who struggle with mental illness.

For 10 years, the Mental Health Coalition has celebrated and recognized families and individuals in our community who have overcome huge obstacles to lead very productive and inspiring lives by hosting our “Shining Star” awards.

In 2017, we congratulate Ken Weinberg of Viroqua for sharing his experiences and making himself available to be present for others confronting the effects of depression, addiction, loneliness and other forms of mental illness. This year’s event is scheduled for 5 p.m. May 9 at the Cargill Room of the Waterfront Restaurant. This event is free and we welcome all who want to make a difference.

For more and information about battling stigma associated with mental illness, or to locate resources for those seeking help, visit the MHC website at mentalhealthlacrosse.org.

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Mike Desmond is executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse and a longtime member of the Mental Health Coalition of Greater La Crosse.


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