July 27, 2008

Failing to Seek Help is Common Problem

By Mary E. Young, Reading Eagle, Pa.

Jul. 27--The misunderstanding and fear associated with mental illness often prevent people from seeking treatment.

Ron and Sharon Seaman of Albany Township learned that firsthand when Sharon began experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia in 1999.

In 2004, when treatment finally started turning their lives around for the better, they wanted to do something to help other families facing mental illness.

Ron, 55, and Sharon, 51, became active in the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

Ron is now president of the volunteer board.

Sharon educates people about mental illness.

The Seamans followed a typical path, said Dr. Edward B. Michalik, head of the Berks County Mental Health/Mental Retardation program.

The person with mental illness refuses to acknowledge the illness and resists treatment, so the family adapts to the changes as best it can, he said. Meanwhile, symptoms worsen.

The longer the delay in getting help, the greater the lasting impact of the symptoms and the more difficult the treatment is likely to be, Michalik said.

With mental illness, relationships, jobs and sometimes even homes are lost, he said.

"It's really a pay-now-or-paylater type of issue, no matter what type of illness you struggle with, physical or mental," Michalik said.

With treatment, most people with mental illness can return to their former lives or, with some changes, live productive lives, Michalik said.

"There's help out there," he said. "It's treatable.

"Without treatment, you lose so much of your life."

Ron spent five years trying to persuade Sharon to get help.

In 2004, he called Michalik for advice because she was refusing to take the anti-seizure medication she had been on since she was 19 and her physical health was in jeopardy.

That call led Ron to a caseworker and a team of mental health professionals who convinced Sharon that she should be hospitalized for treatment.

"I was afraid I would go in one kind of person and come out another kind of person (that) maybe I didn't want to be," she said. "I thought it was like being a born-again Christian or something like that. It's not like that.

"They helped me get my former person back."

Ron said Sharon would not come as far as she has without the support of family, friends and NAMI.

Even though Ron worked in the county government for 23 years, he didn't know the county's casework contractor, Service Access Management Inc., was available to help families in their situation, he said.

"We were kind of baptized by immersion," he said. "Every day you found out something you didn't know before.

"There are individuals to help you. NAMI has a phone number you can call. We maintain a library where you can get information on a host of mental illnesses.

"Ask for help and support."


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