Athens Community Pays Tribute To Veterans And People Who Suffered From Mental Illness

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Pearl Mae Hanley-Coakley died 64 years ago after suffering from Huntington's disease which causes the death of nerve cells in the brain.

After her death she was buried at one of the cemeteries at the Athens Mental Health Center, also known as the Ridges.

For 62 years her descendants didn't know anything about her until two years ago when one of Pearl's great-granddaughters started doing some family research.

Teresa Clapper found Pearl's name and eventually contacted Thomas Walker.

Thomas Walker is a member of the Athens chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, called NAMI.

For years, the Athens chapter of NAMI has been restoring the cemeteries at the Ridges. Their goal is to demystify the three mental health graveyards. Walker showed Clapper the grave of her great-grandmother. 

"Being able to find her, it means a lot to me and the rest of my relatives," Clapper said.

On Monday the Athens chapter of NAMI honored Pearl and a World War One veteran, Jesse Sparks, in a Memorial Day ceremony.

During the event, keynote speaker Terry Russel, the Executive Chief of NAMI Ohio, stressed the importance of helping returning soldiers with mental problems.

Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl then placed a wreath at the grave of Jesse Sparks, and State Rep. Debbie Phillips placed one on Pearl's grave.

Phillips said she attended the ceremony because she wanted to help break the stigma of people with mental illness.

"People face challenges, need help and it's okay to seek help," she said.

Breaking the stigma was also Walker's concern.

"There's a great deal of prejudice against people that have mental illness," he said.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides help to families whose relatives suffer from mental illnesses.

"Mental illness is extremely common," Walker explained.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in four Americans aged 18 and over suffer from a diagnosable mental illness.

For Clapper and her family members finding out about her great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother and even great-great-great-grandmother was exciting, Clapper explained.

More than 15 family members came to Athens on Monday to remember Pearl.