McEntee: First, we must learn about mental illness
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Chances are that you know someone who suffers with mental illness. I do and have lost loved ones to the saddest of self-imposed relief: suicide.

Sunday is the start of Mental Illness Awareness Week, an opportunity to learn about and explain mental illness — including major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia — and its causes and treatments, many of which have proven to be helpful.

There are statistics, but there also are stories to be shared.

Nationwide, 6 percent of Americans have a severe mental illness, and the disease affects one in 15 families, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Utah.

In 2011, 500 Utahns committed suicide while 244 perished in traffic fatalities, says Kim Myers, director of NAMI-Utah's prevention-by-design program. And youth suicides here exceed the national average.

Why so many? The altitude? Availability of firearms? Fewer services? In Utah, Myers says, mental health professionals are able to serve just 30 percent of those who need help.

On average, those afflicted live 25 years less than the rest of the population because less than a third of adults and half the children diagnosed get treatment.

Early intervention is essential, Myers says. Half of mental illnesses appear by age 14, and 75 percent by age 21. Along the spectrum, that's your child, your sister, your dad, your best friend, the guy you sit next to at work. Depending on the nature of their illnesses, they can appear perfectly normal or overwhelmed by the burden and pain of mental illness.

I grew up with a cousin and his mother, both of whom were often crippled by depression. At my aunt's funeral, that son played a tape of his mother asking if he'd had "the fear" lately. Two other cousins died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Their parents never got over it.

Long ago, I encountered depression. I was a new mother, working full time, when the colors of the world faded and its air became all too thin. An editor who knew the feeling took me out for coffee and told me he thought I might be depressed. Startled, I objected, but gradually came to know that I really was. The colors finally came back, and I could breathe. I was lucky.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series on suicide. The families of several people who had chosen the ultimate escape told me about the sons, dads and brothers who'd left them behind.

One was Mike, a gay man who'd undergone "reparative therapy" as a teenager and never got over it, suffering for years from depression. Another was a father whose descent into depression and drug abuse ended in suicide, tormenting his daughter for years until she became a prevention activist.

There were many more, far too many.

I don't have any ready solutions. But I can ask that all of us make a point of learning more about mental illness, its causes and treatments. It's human nature to try to find alternate reasons for why a loved one is suffering, but that does nothing for either of you.

NAMI-Utah, state and local health departments, colleges and universities and many other agencies, nonprofits and online outlets can help people understand mental illness and its toll on those afflicted. Only by facing such issues, and finding help, can we be fully aware of the pain sufferers endure — and the treatments to ease it.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.