Mental Illness: DuPage's No. 1 Health Concern Disorders Span All Ages, Races and Social Classes

By Wallace, Diana | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

Mental Illness: DuPage's No. 1 Health Concern Disorders Span All Ages, Races and Social Classes


Wallace, Diana, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Diana Wallace Daily Herald Staff Writer

The guests arrived at the party looking like a cross-section of suburbia:

Young couples with children in tow.

Gray-haired ladies carrying plastic-wrapped trays of cookies.

A bearded man in a Grateful Dead T-shirt.

But what brought this crowd together on a recent wintry night in Glen Ellyn was a shared history of suffering and heartache.

All of them either have a mental illness or have a loved one who does.

The gathering - an awards ceremony for the DuPage County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill - demonstrated what such advocacy groups continually stress: that mental illness can strike anyone, regardless of social or professional status, intelligence or race.

In fact, one in five Americans suffers from some type of mental disorder in a given year, according to the National Mental Health Association.

In DuPage County, health officials are aggressively pushing for more funding for mental illness treatment programs. But that battle is made tougher by the common misconception that mental illness isn't a problem here.

That misconception has lingered despite the fact that prominent people both locally and nationally - from former DuPage County Board Chairman Gayle Franzen to celebrities like Kim Basinger, Mike Wallace and Carrie Fisher - have spoken publicly about their own struggles with mental illness.

"It's an issue that, until now, has never really seen much recognition because DuPage is seen as being affluent, well-educated and having a great quality of life," said Linda Kurzawa, president of the DuPage County Board of Health. "But - go figure - depression and mental illness is a problem here, and the numbers just scream it across the board."

For example:

- A recent community health assessment cited undiagnosed and untreated mental illness as the No. 1 public health issue in DuPage County.

- Depression is the No. 1 cause of disability in the county and the fourth-leading cause of hospitalization.

- In 1999, more people in DuPage County committed suicide than were killed in car accidents, and nearly five times as many people killed themselves than were killed by someone else.

From depression to panic attacks, schizophrenia to eating disorders, DuPage County residents struggle every day with a vast spectrum of mental illnesses.

For some, severe and persistent mental illness robs them of the ability to hold down jobs or live independently. For others, the outward signs are less obvious. They are able, seemingly, to maintain employment and be successful while, internally, they suffer from feelings of depression and hopelessness.

Many of the patients seen by Dr. Caroline Morrison, a Naperville psychiatrist, are "higher functioning," with illnesses like depression and mood and panic disorders.

"They are the executives, the homemakers, the teachers," she said. "The majority of the people I see are functioning, productive members of society who don't fit the typical stereotypes of mental illness. ... They're seeking treatment so that they will continue to be productive."

Particularly for those with more severe mental illness and their families, intensely active, volunteer-led groups like NAMI are a lifeline.

They provide advocacy, sponsor support groups and even provide work for those who've struggled to hold down a job elsewhere.

Jessy Williamson, who lives in a mental illness group home in Winfield, does clerical work in the NAMI of DuPage office in Wheaton.

"I really wanted to keep a job for a long time, but I've never been able to," said Williamson, 46. "This has helped me feel better about myself and my self-esteem because, even though I have an illness, I can work."

Of equal importance are the social activities that provide mental illness sufferers with a sense of structure, stability and community. …

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