Living with Mental Illness - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Living with Mental Illness

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -- May is National Mental Health Month - a time to put a spotlight on mental illness. Chances are you have a friend or family member with a mental illness. One in four adults experience a mental health disorder in a given year. Recently, high profile murder trials in eastern Iowa have examined the role mental illness may have played in those crimes. Those are two of the worst-case scenarios among the millions of people living with mental illness. For most, it's a disease you can't see.

Kirsten Weaver is a junior at Cedar Falls High School. Like many of her friends, she plays softball, struggles with Spanish and is looking forward to college but she also has a mental illness. She has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

"It's mainly schedules. If somebody messes with something I've already planned ahead of time, no matter how far away it is, it'll just set it off," said Weaver.

That means lashing out, withdrawing, or falling into deep depression. Her mother noticed problems when Kirsten was younger and looked for help when Kirsten was nine years old.

"She was just so hard to handle. She threw fits all the time and there was no discipline that was going to make her behave. It just seemed like she was naughty," said Becky Weaver.

"When I would lash out at my family members, I would do it and I would think in the back of my mind, why am I doing this? It's like something is in me and I can't control it. That's why I needed these pills so it could calm it down," said Kirsten Weaver.

Kirsten is just one of an estimated 40 million people living with an anxiety disorder. That's about 18% of adults. She was diagnosed early. Half of all lifetime cases begin by 14 years old, three-quarters by the age of 24.

Sally Robinson has been living with depression and anxiety disorders for 30 years. She's an advocate and leads peer support groups for the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She says it takes courage to come forward.

"We have a hidden disease but it doesn't hide the stigma that goes with it. Most people do not want to deal with a problem because there's a big stigma. Why don't you just pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get involved in life? No, that won't work because it's a chemical imbalance that causes these problems," said Robinson.

"More people with mental illness tend to be withdrawn, tend to be isolated. What NAMI is trying to do is to try to bring people out to get a support network, to find friends, others they can turn to./The misconception, most people, the majority, are never ever going to turn to violence," said Leslie Cohn, executive director of the Black Hawk Co. chapter of NAMI.

Cohn says the most important step is the first step.

"When you're talking about what stigma does, what is the most harmful effect of it, is the fact people are afraid to seek treatment and treatment makes all the difference," said Cohn.

"Diagnosis of a mental illness isn't the end of the world. It's kind of a good beginning. If your child is miserable and you can help them live well, I would think that would be a lot better than trying to pretend it doesn't exist," said Becky Weaver.

Kirsten's OCD won't go away over time but she's learning how to better manage it.

"OCD isn't just hoarding or washing hands, it can deal with depression and it's not one of the easier mental illnesses but you have to get tough and get through it," said Weaver.

Kirsten's mom says she gets a lot of unsolicited advice from people who don't take her daughter's illness seriously. They tell her if Kirsten put her mind to it, she could get over her issues. Kirsten's mom tells them, it's like saying to a diabetic, if you eat this piece of candy and put your mind to it, you won't have any ill effects from the insulin.

Black Hawk County is one of two counties in the state to have a mental health court. It started last year and gives people an opportunity to participate in treatment to avoid criminal sanctions.

To contact NAMI of Black Hawk County, call 319-235-5263.

Online Anchor/ReporterBob Waters

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