Mental Illness in Utah

Stigma surrounding mental illness creates hurdles to seeking help

October 5, 2017

Jeremy Holm was 16 when he first experienced what he described as anxious energy. As a student at Skyline High School in the late 90’s, the concept of depression and anxiety wasn’t something Holm was familiar with.

“You start wondering, you know is something wrong with me, am I broken or am I doing something wrong? I didn’t really know what was going on until years later,” he said

A former bobsled athlete, coach and now author and motivational speaker, Holm understands firsthand the misconceptions that surround who can be affected by a mental illness.

“They’ll look at me and think, ‘Well, you’re not someone that I would think would struggle with that,’” he said. “And that’s when I say – exactly.”

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The first week in October is designated as Mental Illness Awareness Week. It was established in 1990 by Congress as a nod to the work done by the National Alliance on Mental Illness to raise awareness for, among others, conditions such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

Even though it’s a state with a high suicide rate, Utahns are reluctant to seek mental health assistance, said Kristy Jones, community health manager at McKay-Dee Hospital.

In 2014, 43.6 million adults in the U.S. aged 18 or over reported experiencing a mental illness in the previous year, according to a report released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — a rate of 1 in 5. For serious mental illnesses, defined as those seriously affecting a person’s ability to function, it’s 1 in 25.

Utah ranks fifth in the nation for suicide deaths overall.

“When you’re enmeshed in the depression, the anxiety or other illnesses, you often feel like you are alone, and that this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Jones said, “but you’re not alone.”

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The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illnesses as “health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). They are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”

Mental illnesses are a health condition that affect individuals and are indiscriminate of age, gender, economic standing or ethnicity. “We’ve seen children as young as 4 and 5 years old in mental health crises,” Jones said. “Some of that is genetic and some of it is what’s happening in the world around them.”

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The National Alliance on Mental Illness is one organization pushing for understanding through education. With 10 county affiliates in Utah, NAMI offers support groups and classes for the mentally ill, their families, or for someone who wants to learn more about how to help.

“There’s so many people that want to help but just don’t understand,” said Paula Halley, president of the NAMI Weber County affiliate. “That fear, that stigma — it’s just so ingrained in our society.”

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When her son was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at 15, she felt the same way. Then in 2012, Halley attended a free 12-week course by NAMI called “Family-to-Family.”

The class, held at Weber Human Services in Ogden, seeks to teach people how to best care for and support a loved one who is mentally ill. Five years later, Halley is now teaching the class.

“It’s always this squeaky wheel,” she said, “and you just have to scream out loud and say there is no shame in mental illness. Once you relieve the fear, you can get the message across.”

Select the image above to explore a listing of national, state and local resources.

Coalitions of community members, local agencies and nonprofit organizations like the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition and the Northern Utah HOPE Task Force have formed to break down the stigma associated with mental illness. Both have worked to create educational opportunities and community events to raise awareness and prevent suicide.

An app called SafeUT was introduced to Utah public schools in 2016 as a way for students to anonymously speak or text with a licensed therapist 24/7 about anything that may be troubling them.

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RELATED: Weber, Davis school districts implement new app for students in crisis

For Jones, chairman of the Northern Utah HOPE Task Force, the problem isn’t that resources don’t exist — it’s that many aren’t seeking help when they need it, and that’s what needs to change.

“We need to have more dialogue about mental health, we need to make it so that it’s OK,” she said.

“We need people to know they’re not alone.”

Contact visuals journalist Sarah Welliver at 801-625-4240 or swelliver@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @welliverse.