“What are some slang words for experiencing a mental illness?”

When Sue Abderholden ’76, executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Minnesota, poses this question, she hears “Crazy,” “Psycho,” “Nuts”—the list is endless.

But when she asks for slang terms for cancer, the group’s silence makes her point: There’s a stigma unique to mental illnesses. Since assuming the helm of NAMI in 2001, Abderholden has worked to change that.

Around the world, mental illnesses are the leading cause of disability, according to Abderholden, citing the World Health Organization. “Once your illness is disabling, it severely limits your ability to finish school or work, often resulting in poverty,” she says. “Yet people with mental illnesses face discrimination in coverage by insurers.”

Abderholden’s skillful handling of NAMI has brought it notable success at the state capitol. In 2007 the organization worked closely with the legislature and a broad coalition of stakeholders to pass the Minnesota Mental Health Initiative, which promotes community-based treatment and support for people with mental illnesses and their families. It was the largest mental health initiative ever passed in Minnesota.

Half of adults with a mental illness have symptoms of that disease by age 14, says Abderholden, and on average people experience symptoms for 10 years before seeking treatment. Thus, she says, it’s critical to provide services to young people before their illness progresses, threatening their education, livelihood—their very happiness. She was back at the state legislature last February advocating for more mental health funds for schools.

It’s critical to provide services to young people before their illness progresses, threatening their education, livelihood—their very happiness. 

Recent incidents, such as the school shootings in Newtown, Mass., underline the need for such early intervention. Although violence rarely accompanies a mental illness, when it does, the results can be tragic. Minnesota’s worst workplace tragedy occurred in September 2012, when Andrew Engeldinger took a gun to work at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis. He killed five people and wounded three others before killing himself.

Desperate to help their son, Engeldinger’s parents had recently taken a NAMI course on dealing with mental illness. But because he was an adult with no known violent inclinations, there was little they could do. Abderholden spent the day after the shootings with Andrew’s family, acting as their spokesperson. It was, she says, “the hardest day of my career.”

In an attempt to educate the public, Abderholden—together with other Twin Cities mental health professionals—has developed educational posters promoting the use of sensitive language around mental illnesses and featuring gifted people—such as Abraham Lincoln and Isaac Newton—who experienced schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

Abderholden also recently consulted with Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre when it produced the play Next to Normal, which deals with bipolar disorder. The production was directed by Mixed Blood Theatre’s founder Jack Reuler ’75, who has worked with Abderholden on other projects as well.

All these successful initiatives have led to a wall full of plaques from the National Association of Social Workers, the governor, and the Minnesota Psychiatric Society. Yet Abderholden, ever a pragmatist, isn’t resting on her laurels. “We need more housing and more employment support for people with mental illnesses,” she says. “No one gets better sitting in their apartment watching daytime TV and smoking cigarettes all day.”


July 29 2013

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