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Today's mental health struggles are a familiar story

Climbing that rock: Diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 14, Manesca Bray, then 23, learned some hard lessons about dealing with the disease.
Climbing that rock: Diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 14, Manesca Bray, then 23, learned some hard lessons about dealing with the disease. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Some stories repeat.

Too often because the underlying issue was never addressed.

In 1968, California closed many psychiatric hospitals.

According to a March 2, 2000, chart by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the California State Hospital population went from a high of 36,319 in 1956-57 to 3,961 in 1997-98.

Keep in mind that California’s population was growing at a double-digit rate during that time frame. The population more than doubled from about 15 million to almost 34 million from 1960 to 2000.

36,319 California State Hospital population in 1956-57

Laws were written in the 1960s to end inappropriate, indefinite and involuntary commitments.

State officials promised the money saved closing institutions would go to counties for local treatment.

Didn’t happen.

No one is clamoring for the return of an antiquated institutional warehouse model of mental health services.

But if your work environment includes a desktop police radio scanner, then it is no surprise calls for mental health services are a daily occurrence.

The Tribune just completed a four part series on local mental health services that gave me a nagging sense of déjà vu.

Compare Tonya Strickland’s stories from this month to the following one by Ann Fairbanks from two decades earlier, published May 26, 1995:

Making the county ‘mentally ill accessible’

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Macesa Bray was 14 when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“I was going through mental illness at the same time as puberty,” Bray said, “and that sucked.”

Now 23, Bray stood nervously in front of about 130 people gathered Wednesday night in the City-County Library’s Community Room.

There to tell them what it’s like to live with a mental illness, she was one of three featured speakers at a forum organized and put on by mental health clients themselves.

“I compare mental illness to climbing up a rock,” Bray said. “At first it’s really tough, really hard. I felt alone. I was tired. I felt like quitting.”

She heard voices. Her friends laughed at her. “They didn’t care. They treated me like I was nothing.”

She was paranoid. If someone coughed or sneezed, she thought they were talking about her. She thought people on the street were videotaping her.

“My family didn't believe they had a sister or a daughter or an aunt with a mental illness,” Bray said. “It was hard for them to understand. But they stuck with me. And to this day my mom and I are best friends.”

Her illness caused great turmoil at home, and she ended up in a series of group homes.

But she “kept climbing that rock,” Bray said, kept taking her medication, learning about her illness, and taking advantage of resources like her friends, family and treatment.

“Then I was at the top of my rock,” she said. “ moved into community housing. I’m living independently. I take medication and I'm stabilized. For once in my life I'm managing my own money and that is the most awesome thing in the world.

“My advice to other people with mental illness is to please, take your medication. It really helps. And if you get stuck on that rock, ask for help and get support from other people.

Bray is a client of the Mental Health Association, a nonprofit organization that provides social and vocational rehabilitation programs for adults with psychiatric disabilities.

The association’s advisory committee, made up of individuals with mental illness, organized the forum to heighten the community’s awareness and clear up misconceptions about mental illness.

Instead of traveling to rallies in Sacramento this month in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, advisory committee member Ian Cohen said they decided to hold their own rally here.

Also speaking at the forum was Debbie Talbott, who suffers from manic-depression and who leads self-help groups at the association as a peer advocate.

“I was 35 years old before my bipolar illness even surfaced,” the 44-year-old Santa Maria resident told the crowd. “I had a life. I had a husband. I had three children.”

At first misdiagnosed, she was given medication that “plummeted me into the most horrible depression for six months,” Talbott said. “I remember hallucinations beyond most people's imaginations. I attacked nurses. I did things that were totally outside of normal for most people.”

But she made her way back, Talbott said. “I have been on medication for 10 years and I wouldn't ever consider taking the chance (of going off it),” she said. “Please take your medication. It’s the most important thing you need to do to stabilize yourself. Be patient and work carefully to find a program that works for you.”

Dale Wolff, the county’s mental health director, complimented the clients for putting on the forum here, reminding them that it’s the county that’s responsible for providing mental health services.

“One might ask: Why does anybody care about mental illness?” he said.

Here’s why: One in five Americans will experience some kind of significant mental disorder in any given year; 31 percent of Americans report they or someone in their family have required psychiatric treatment; mental illness is responsible for more hospitalizations than cancer, heart disease and lung disease combined.

“If people with mental illness are helped to be all they can be, who profits?” Wolff asked.

“We do,” the crowd responded.

“When someone is not able to find or accept help, does anybody hurt?”

“We do,” the crowd responded.

“We need to make the community more mentally ill friendly,” Wolff said. “We have ‘wheelchair accessible,’ but we don’t have ‘mentally ill accessible’ sometimes.”

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