Is Mental Illness a Brain Disease?

Suicide, mental illness: Tough topics that need to be talked about

The Oklahoman Editorial Oklahoman    Published: October 27, 2010

JOE Rolston IV was a bright man and a successful attorney. He also suffered from mental illness and recently killed himself at age 46. To their credit, his loved ones aren’t hiding from that.

In Rolston’s paid obituary Sunday in The Oklahoman, they wrote: “The endearing qualities that made us love Joe were a mask, of sorts, that hid the relentless pain of bipolar disorder and manic depression. There was an abiding sadness that tugged at Joe’s heart and caused him to seek an end to his ever present pain and inability to love himself.”

They urged readers to go to the National Institutes of Health‘s website to learn more about depression and bipolar disorder.

These conversations need to be had. Suicide was the leading cause of violent death in the United States in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The highest rate was found among those 45 to 54 years old. All too often, however, those left behind stay quiet about it because of the stigma that can be associated with mental illness.

In Broken Arrow on Tuesday night, a second annual suicide prevention forum was held. On the program were discussions about risk factors associated with suicide, and ways to help the community craft suicide prevention strategies.

One of the scheduled speakers was Joan Benedict-Dickey, whose daughter committed suicide three years ago at age 22. Benedict-Dickey isn’t reluctant to tell others how her daughter died, but when she does it’s almost always a conversation-stopper.

“Had she died of cancer, diabetes or something, there would have been some understanding,” Benedict-Dickey told the Tulsa World. “Mental illness is no different than diabetes or cancer. It is a brain disease.”

This is a point mental health experts in Oklahoma have been making for years, particularly now as they deal with smaller budgets brought on by the effects of the recession. Terri White, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuses Services, recently told legislators that about 70 percent of Oklahoma adults aren’t able to get treatment for mental illness, and 40 percent of children who need help with mental health issues can’t get it.

Untreated, these conditions can lead to criminal activity — it’s estimated that about half of Oklahoma’s prison inmates have mental health-related issues — or to self-destructive behavior. Consider that during the first three quarters of this year, calls placed to the state’s suicide prevention hot line were up 65 percent over the same period a year ago.

The drivers of the Broken Arrow forum are a pair of high school teachers. One of them, Kristen Gillespie, was a first-year teacher when one of her students committed suicide. “We’re trying to break the silence,” Gillespie says. Good for them.

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