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Mental Illness: Bringing Down The Walls of Stigma (PART 2)

In this segment of our Sense of Community series, we take a look at how the stigma associated with mental illness prevents people from seeking the treatment they need. KSMU's Jennifer Moore reports.

I'm Jennifer Moore. In this segment of our Sense of Community series on mental illness, we head over to the local chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

[Sound of door opening]

Inside, we find 56-year-old Janet Plemmons."It goes from the real high mania to the real low manic depression," she says.

About a year ago, she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. For most of her life, she has lived a roller coaster of extreme peaks and valleys.

"The manic highs: that’s where my delusions of grandeur come in. I feel like I can do anything. I feel like no one can stop me from being the most wonderful thing on earth," she says.

When she’s not on her medication, she doesn’t think things through before acting. She used to fearlessly max out her credit cards. Once when she got lost on the way to Columbia, she almost intentionally drove her car off of a ledge. On one of her manic highs, she thought she could become the next great stand-up comedian.

"So I sold my car, took a Greyhound bus to Hollywood, and some friends let me stay there for three weeks. I went to the Comedy Store, and the marquee said '40 comics a night,' so I thought, well, at least I won't be singled out."

She was actually a hit at the comedy club. But her high didn’t last long, and she came right back to Springfield.

Like many mental illnesses, the cause of Bipolar Disorder is unknown. But experts believe it’s due to a combination of a person’s life experiences, and the biochemistry of that individual’s brain.

In a healthy brain, the impulse travels along a complex circuitry, kind of like a roadway. Chemicals known as “neurotransmitters” are responsible for carrying the impulse from neuron to neuron along that path. But in someone with Bipolar Disorder, as well as depression and Schizophrenia, scientists believe those neurotransmitters don’t behave as they should, and the message gets lost, or distorted.

"That process in a normal brain is one that's smooth, there are not obstacles," says Dr.Paul Deal, an assistant professor in psychology at MSU, and the assistant director of the univesity’s learning diagnostic clinic.

"For someone with a serious mental illness, whether its Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder, that process can be disrupted," Deal says.He pulls up a website showing results from a study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles. The pictures show how individuals with Schizophrenia actually lose brain matter as the illness progresses, indicating that some mental illnesses are partially caused by structural changes to the brain. Deal says there is a widespread misconception that the mentally ill are typically violent, when statistically, they tend to be victims of crime more often than perpetrators. He also says many people believe that someone who’s mentally ill can overcome his or her problems through sheer will power.

"I’d say it would be great it that was the case. But serious mentall illnesses are a product of biological, genetic influences and how those interact with the environment," he said.

Just as diabetes affects the pancreas, he says, disorders like Bipolar, major depression, and Schizophrenia physically affect the brain. Experts say most serious mental illnesses must be treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Since being diagnosed with Bipolar, Plemmons has begun to take medication and learn coping skills which help her live with her disorder.

'Before I started taking the medication, I would take cry deep, dark crying, despair, at least twice a week," Plemmons says.

Now, she says she can’t remember the last time she had one of those crying sessions.

The medicine, she says, evens out her emotions. Before, she was unable to keep a stable job, but now she’s re-entering the workforce.

[Sound: KEYS]

She currently works as a paid staff member at the NAMI office. She goes into local high schools and speaks on living with a mental illness, and she’s working with state lawmakers to make sure the mentally ill are not forgotten about.

[SOUND: Books on shelf]

As she shelves books in the NAMI library, she tells me she’d like to use her humor to directly confront the stigma associated with mental illness.

"It’s so funny, when I first started coming here, I had a habit of saying 'Oh, you're so crazy!' And so, people look at me real funny, and I've tried not to say that as much, but I've said it all my life," she says, laughing.

Mental illnesses are serious physical illnesses, and they do not discriminate across the lines of race, age, or income.

The stigma about mental illness can take on the form of prejudice, fear, distrust or stereotyping. According to the Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health, this stigma prevents many people from seeking the treatment they need, and it also hampers research and funding.

"I wish people would understand that they need to treat this as a sickness such as cancer, or anything like that. It's just a disorder," she says.

Janet Plemmons, and others like her, say it's time to bring down these walls.

For KSMU’s Sense of Community Series, I’m Jennifer Moore.