Light up the dark: Bring first aid to struggling souls

Something seems off with that coworker two cubicles over. She’s become withdrawn, looks tired all the time.

Or perhaps it’s the neighbor across the street, the one who so often appears angry, and then he’ll suddenly become docile and sort of goofy.

Maybe it’s your teenager’s friend, who’s lost a lot of weight and doesn’t look you in the eye anymore.

It could be that all of them are struggling with mental illness. Lots of people are, you know.

“It’s not ‘those people.’ It’s us. One out of four of us has a mental illness,” said Barry Groesch, who works at Linden Oaks Hospital at Edward and coordinates the Naperville facility’s Mental Health First Aid training sessions.

In the three years since the program was launched, 3,608 people have completed the eight-hour training in 184 classes taught by 51 instructors who work through about 32 entities — from the Samaritan Interfaith Counseling Center to the Naperville Police Department, the Naperville Public Libraries to all of the local school districts, attorneys to social workers.

“It’s everybody across the board. It’s not just clinicians, doctors, cops — it’s everybody. It’s family members, friends, teachers, coworkers,” Groesch said.

Perception continues to be the biggest problem for many who struggle. A significant chunk of the population continues to see depression as a human failing, a personal flaw. The oh-for-Pete’s-sake-snap-out-of-it! mentality persists, evidently oblivious to the fact that mental illness is just that: an illness. We don’t fault people for being sickened by cancer or MS, so it boggles the mind when we lay blame for depression, anxiety or any of the other faces worn by behavioral disorder.

“There’s kind of a myth that it’s just a lack of motivation, or there’s something wrong with the person,” said Bob Skrocki, a licensed clinical social worker, communications coordinator for the locally based Interfaith Mental Health Coalition, and a member of the DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church in Naperville who works in mental health ministry.

The church, which recently hosted a Mental Health First Aid session, will hold special services at 9:30 and 11:15 a.m. March 30, titled “The Unbroken Circle,” to try to lift the shroud off of mental illness and give people some of the tools they need to help those who have lost their way. As part of the two services, four well-known congregation members will stand up and talk about how mental illness has affected their lives and families.

“It’s a very powerful testimony about how common and debilitating a mental health disorder can be,” said Skrocki, who has spent nearly four decades working in the field.

I think it’s very hard for a lot of us to accept, because it’s a cruel reality, that this issue is inextricably connected to others that also call for our attention and resources. Mental illness doesn’t happen in a vacuum; more often than not its threads crisscross with substance abuse, poverty, crime, suicide, unemployment, homelessness, domestic violence — or all of the above. That’s more than we can take on at once, so it’s understandable if we don’t want to think about it.

But we have to, because so many of those things involve people who are waging quiet battles with the demons of mental illness.

Even if you just look at things in bottom-line terms, it makes abundant sense to devote more of our attention and resources to diagnosing and treating the mentally ill. Consider the federal Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013, which called for $20 million for community programming in fiscal 2014, to train people to come to the aid of those with mental illness. Those funds could be freed up if we somehow could find a way to, for example, pare the $487 billion federal defense budget by four one-thousandths of one percent.

The bill has languished in committee since the day it was pitched some 14 months ago. That’s a shame, considering the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform puts the yearly cost of untreated mental illness in the county at $1 billion, if you factor in reduced productivity, treatment for physical illnesses, social supports and crime. Not a vacuum at all.

We can do better, and we can start by not behaving as if behavioral disorder is akin to leprosy.

“I think the overwhelming part of it is the stigma. Who put that there? We did. Society put that there,” said Groesch, who spent 30 years as a cop before he turned his professional attention to mental health. “We need to help each other.”

Can I get an amen?

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