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Published June 03, 2012, 11:30 PM

InDepth | Stigma about mental disorders keeps people from seeking help

FARGO - Even though Darrin Albert is very bright and articulate, he’s had a lot of trouble finding a job. And though he’s very friendly, he’s been called a creep.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

FARGO - Even though Darrin Albert is very bright and articulate, he’s had a lot of trouble finding a job.

And though he’s very friendly, he’s been called a creep.

His problems are characteristic of his mental disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder. But they’re also characteristic of our society’s lack of understanding surrounding mental health.

Employers look for things like eye contact, a firm handshake, confidence, and charisma, but because his brain inhibits him in practicing certain methods of communication that are socially expected, he has been passed over in job interviews, he said.

“Sometimes people with Asperger’s syndrome lack some of the social graces,” he said. “You might stare at the floor. You might come across as awkward.”

Though mental health – including Asperger’s and other diagnoses within the Autism spectrum – has come a long way, says Susan Helgeland, Mental Health America of North Dakota’s executive director, society still has a long way to go before it treats mental health like any other function of the body, she said.

We wouldn’t tell someone with a heart condition or diabetes to just deal with their illnesses, yet people with mental health issues are often hesitant to seek help because of the social stigma surrounding mental disorders, said Helgeland, who started working at the North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown in 1964.

“The brain is part of the body,” Helgeland said. “We have no trouble talking about cardiovascular disease, we have no trouble talking about diabetes, but when it comes to depression, anxiety, bipolar, ADHD and some of these others that are a result of our behavior changing, then people seem to be reluctant.”

Even though mental disorders are health conditions, people still think it will get better if they just have a better marriage, a better job, a better climate, or more money, but it doesn’t, Helgeland said.

It takes a long time for people to understand that someone can’t just get over a brain disorder, she said, adding, “If they could, they would.”

Part of the problem is that when someone has a mental disorder, it’s often treated as a character defect, said James Pfiefer, a licensed professional clinical counselor with Prairie St. John’s in Fargo.

“Shoulder pain is not a statement of character defect, but if I’m one of ‘those people’ who can’t seem to get out of bed in the morning, then I’m lazy,” Pfiefer said.

In addition, living life when you’re depressed is extremely difficult, so asking for help is even harder, he said.

“It’s not like they wake up and say, ‘I’d like to be lazy today’,” he said. “They don’t have the energy. They don’t have the ability to put thoughts together in a way that helps them get going.”

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

Albert wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome until six or seven years ago, when he had been kicked out of college and needed a psychiatric evaluation as part of his process for fighting his way back in.

“In some ways it was almost kind of nice knowing some of these things I was going through weren’t as unique as I had originally thought,” he said.

Reading about Asperger’s syndrome, Albert said it didn’t even sound like a disorder so much as a personality type.

Albert also has anxiety and depression and said it’s common for people with Asperger’s syndrome to have those mental health disorders, too.

“It’s just because of how different and eccentric people with Asperger’s tend to be and they run into a lot of barriers because of it,” he said. “Even Freud emphasized love and work as the two important things in a person’s life and both of those can be very tough for people with Asperger’s.”

A job interview can be a daunting and arduous task, he said, but to prepare for things like that, Albert sees a therapist and has undergone social skills training.

By considering the situation almost like play, he thinks through his actions and answers ahead of time as if he were studying a script, he said.

“You kind of just walk the walk and talk the talk,” he said.

He has even testified in Bismarck, advocating for maintaining government funding of community-based support and reducing stigma for people with mental health issues.

SOCIETAL IMPACT

Left untreated, a mental health disorder could lead to serious consequences like unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, incarceration and suicide, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

The World Health Organization has reported that four of the 10 leading causes of disability in the United States and other developed countries are mental disorders, NAMI states on its website.

The economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than $100 billion dollars each year in the United States, according to NAMI.

Helgeland said in North Dakota, more than half of the people in county jails and state prisons have mental illnesses, substance use issues or dual diagnoses.

“It shouldn’t be happening in our country that we treat people by putting them into prison and emergency rooms,” Helgeland said. “Jail is not a good place to treat mental illness.”

There is a Jail Intervention Coordinating Committee getting together to address the problem. There is also a mental health coordinator at the Cass County Jail, Helgeland said.

But what the state also needs are mental health courts where, similar to drug courts, where people could avoid jail by participating in treatment, Helgeland said.

“We would not put people in jail for having heart disease,” Helgeland said. “It’s so hard to have us all on the same page with this.”

The state also needs more community-based services, like the Mert Armstrong Recovery Center in Fargo, which serves people with a mental illness diagnosis, and places like the Gladys Ray Shelter in Fargo, which takes people who are still using substances, Helgeland said.

The problem is, people are often scared of the folks who use the Gladys Ray Shelter, Helgeland said.

“Most of the folks with persistent addiction, long-term use or abuse of alcohol or whatever drug it is, have undiagnosed, untreated depression, sometimes schizophrenia,” she said. “They are more likely to be hurt themselves than to perpetuate violence on someone else.”

An example of a community based program that’s making a difference is the Peer Support Program run by Mental Health America of North Dakota and the state Department of Human Services.

Albert is the Peer Support Coordinator for Region 5, which includes the Fargo area.

The program connects people who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder with others who are struggling with their own diagnoses, Helgeland said.

It’s a recovery program that focuses on setting goals, crisis management, strength-building and wellness, Albert said.

One of the requirements for Albert’s job is that he has a diagnosed mental disorder, Helgeland said.

“A person with a mental illness can do a better job empathizing with the clients with a similar diagnosis,” he said. “People who are like us tend to understand us more.”

Albert, who is also a job coach at Friendship, Inc. in Fargo, has found that helping others also helps him.

“It’s a good feeling when you’ve been pretty much told you lack the empathy skills to work with people,” he said. “I’ve always liked proving people wrong.”

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