Mental Illness In Athens: Two Families’ Search For The Silver Lining

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It's anyone’s worst fear – the death of a loved one. That fear is becoming a reality for more and more people in Athens County. The county suicide rate has jumped seven percent – from eight percent (six suicides out of 76 coroner cases) in 2011 to 15 percent (11 suicides out of 71 coroner cases) in 2012. At Ohio University, three student suicides have occurred since 2011.

A healthy brain is a mysterious and wonderful thing. Two Athens families in particular have learned in the hardest way possible that when a healthy brain goes wrong, everything – relationships, dreams and sometimes life itself – can fall apart.

A Family’s Story

Chris Schreck was born in 1974 in Chicago, where his parents Edward, a doctor, and Mary Schreck, a nurse, were attending medical school. In 1981, the family moved to Athens, where Chris came to love the Boy Scouts, helping children and family vacations out West. But not everything was perfect. Chris had a learning disability and suffered from seizures.

He was never voted into Boy Scout troop positions and seemed to be treated worse than his healthy sister by an Athens Middle School teacher. Along with the other students who were enrolled at Tri-County Career Center, he was excluded from the Athens High School yearbook his senior year.

Chris’s mother Mary has short curly hair and a smile that, though small, somehow still reaches her eyes. She says she likes to hug people hello and goodbye. There was an undertone of quiet anger in her voice when she recounted the discrimination she said was committed against her son.

“[Kids with learning disabilities] are stigmatized today too, called stupid and crazy and people just don’t make friends with them as much,” she said, her voice rising.

Chris’s father, Edward, and Chris’s younger brother were at home when the sheriff, accompanied by then-deputy Pat Kelly, arrived at their home to tell them Chris had completed suicide (Mary believes that the conventional phrase “commit suicide” is inappropriately criminalizing). Edward met Mary and their daughter at the door when they returned home from a volleyball match in Gallipolis.

“You’re kidding,” Mary recalled responding.

“Then we just hugged each other and cried a lot,” she said.

The next few days were a blur. The mail piled up. Edward painfully selected a casket. The community and Edward’s family reached out. Mary’s family, except for one relative, said nothing.

Chris Schreck had shot himself with a handgun at the sand dunes near his relatives’ home in Colorado. It was four or five days until someone found his body in that desolate, scrub bush-overrun area.

The difficulty in recognizing the signs

It’s never easy to learn a loved one has a mental illness.

Kevin Breel, a 19-year-old comic who has depression, said in his viral TEDx talk, “Unfortunately, when you break your arm, everybody runs over to sign your cast. But if you tell someone you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way.”

The stigma is even evident in our language. Those with mental illness are more frequently defined by their illnesses than those suffering from physical illnesses. While saying, “He’s schizophrenic,” is common, “She’s cancerous” is seldom heard.

The result is that those with mental illness and their loved ones don’t admit they have a mental illness, or if they do admit it, they don’t seek treatment, according to Janet Polzer, an instructor with the Athens chapter and secretary for the state chapter of National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI).

And for the loved ones of those who have illnesses, knowing how to respond to a disease that may not come with physical symptoms is confusing.

Looking back, Mary said that if she had recognized the signs of depression earlier, she would have realized that Chris, who was growing more irritable and making riskier choices, was more depressed than she’d previously thought.

It was not until after his death, that, “we could think of things that were maybe going wrong,” she said.

It’s a common mistake. Polzer remembered an interaction she observed one day in the free NAMI class she teaches, Family-to-Family.

“The father was going on and on and on about the kid getting parking tickets. The person sitting next to me said, ‘Don’t you get that he’s ill?’” she said. “The cruelty is that . . . they look capable . . . It’s as though they’ve got this multiple fracture in their leg and people want them to walk without a limp.”

NAMI classes are not a joyous event, Polzer said. It’s a twelve-week commitment, and to be accepted into the Family-to-Family class you must have a relative with an illness. To maintain confidentiality, friends or observers are not allowed in the classroom. Registration has just opened for the Family-to-Family class that begins this September.

The class offers information about mental illness, empathy and advocacy. In one exercise, students are split into groups based on family status – parents, siblings and children. Sometimes they do simulations to understand what it’s like to hear voices in one’s head. Other times they discuss what to do if a loved one has a psychotic break (Don’t make eye contact, don’t get between the afflicted and the door and most importantly, don’t argue. “It’s futile,” Polzer laughed).

At the beginning of the course, the students are given a checklist of symptoms of mental illness.

“I can see relatives going through and checking [them] off, and now they know [they themselves] are not crazy,” Polzer said.

Other mental health services are available to Athens County residents, and people are using them. Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare and Hopewell Health Centers, formerly called the Tri-County Mental Health Center and Counseling Services, have both seen an increase in patient intake, though it is unclear if this is due to an increase in mental illness or a rise in the ill seeking care.

Every time Hopewell increases its staff count, David Schenkelberg, the Center’s director of behavioral sciences, said, its admittance rate increases as well. That’s a good sign, since many with mental illness disregard their conditions.

“Everyone has an underlying health concern that they put aside to continue living life the way they do,” he said.

Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare is one of six state psychiatric hospitals. The state used to have 22.

Mary Schreck has personally seen the effects of spreading awareness and reaching out to those with mental illness. As a Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention speaker, she’s received feedback from hundreds of teenagers and young adults.

“It’s nice to know someone cares even if my parents don’t,” one student wrote her.

Treatment Trade-offs

The New York Times published two articles in July on the economic costs of not adequately addressing the mental health problem. The personal costs are just as huge. Mental illness, like all serious afflictions, brings pain to anyone who is close to the patient.

Families, if they don’t fall apart, can become strained. Healthy siblings wonder why the sibling with a mental illness receives special treatment. A spouse stops being a partner and becomes a caretaker. One parent wants to commit his or her life to the child with a mental illness, while the other parent says, “Don’t coddle her”; mothers of children with mental illnesses tend to feel guilty, and refuse vacations and other enjoyable activities. Children of parents with mental illness are often neglected.

The most tragic side of mental illness is milestones that can never be reached.

“Who doesn’t want a child who grows up to be somebody who can help society . . . and is happy and carries on whatever our traditions are. Sure, sure. It’s real, real sadness,” Polzer, who has a 36-year-old son with schizoaffective disorder – a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – said. “And it pisses me off sometimes too. I get real angry.”

She laughed before saying, “Sometimes I don’t think people [with healthy families] realize what they’ve got, you know.”

And of course, there’s the financial expense of the treatment. Those with mental illness must seek help from a talk therapist, psychiatrist and a regular doctor. Patients also have to take a plethora of medications. According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, between 2005 and 2009 a plurality of patients spent between $100 and $500 per year on outpatient care or between $100 and $2000 per year on impatient care. Two percent of patients spent more than $5000 per year on outpatient care and 10 percent spent more than $10,000 per year on impatient care.

With insurance, the treatment is affordable, according to Polzer. But without it, the costs are astronomical. Schenkelberg said 90 percent of Hopewell Health Center’s patients are on Medicare, and the remaining 10 percent are charged on a sliding scale.

Polzer said those with a mental illness often self-medicate via alcohol and drug abuse. It’s one of the reasons why the former Ohio Department of Mental Health and Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services have merged, according to the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

But the tradeoffs of taking medication aren’t good. Polzer said the side effects of medication often include sexual dysfunction, significant weight gain and a loss of 25 years off the patient’s life. Medications like Topamax – nicknamed Dopamax – cause fogginess in the brain, she said, which doesn’t bode well for personal interactions or job interviews.

The conversation continues

The mental health awareness movement recently took the national spotlight when one woman wrote a viral editorial advocating better mental health services after the Newtown school shootings. Research is being done into the modern causes of mental illness, such as the poor economy, social media envy (comparing your life to the “superior” lives of your online friends) and the hookup culture.

This past academic year in Athens, in conjunction with the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program, Mary has spoken about suicide to 909 high school students, including students at Chris’s alma mater Athens High School, and 146 college students. She owns a small yellow ribbon pin – the symbol for suicide prevention.

Polzer, who says she has a “big mouth,” has spoken to several politicians, including republican Governor John Kasich and democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown. NAMI encourages its clients to advocate, but Polzer admits that mental illness awareness is a difficult cause to root for.

“People with mental illness don’t vote. And they might look OK if you parade them in front of senators, or they might look scary. They don’t tug on people’s heart strings,” she said.

For Polzer, advocacy has given her and her husband a way to make sense of what has happened to their child and to them. Working with NAMI has given her a way to share that realization, and talking with other families sometimes allows them to see their situations in a humorous light. Polzer’s son is now stable and looking for a job.

“He is awesome,” she said. “He is my hero.”

For Schreck, it still upsets her sometimes to speak about Chris. But speaking about Chris through Yellow Ribbon meetings and in personal conversations, however uncomfortable it makes others feel, allows her to keep his memory alive.

Her son, Chris’s little brother, now lives in Columbus, and her daughter lives in Milwaukee with her husband. Schreck has a new addition to the family – her first grandbaby.

She said her daughter was excited to discover she had given birth to a son. She named him Liam Christopher, after her brother.