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EDITORIAL: Facing mental illness: We have to acknowledge the issue before we can deal with it

Keene Sentinel - 4/6/2019

April 06-- Apr. 6--Sometimes, putting a face on an issue can make all the difference; telling one person's tale can open eyes and ears in a way that statistics can't.

This past week, Sentinel staff writer Sierra Hubbard detailed the story of Gordon Heckman, an artist who spends much of his time sitting in the Prime Roast coffee shop in downtown Keene. Heckman, 60, recently had his paintings shown on the walls of the shop -- as many local artists have over the years -- and sold every one on display.

The backstory, though, is that Heckman, who is homeless, also deals with mental illness, specifically schizoaffective disorder. Its symptoms can include hallucinations and delusions -- in addition to mood episodes, such as depression or mania.

Heckman's story is one that might be cause for cautious optimism: optimism in the success he's found through his art, and the acceptance and support provided by the staff at Prime Roast; caution because, as detailed in the story, Heckman continues to battle with his mental illness, which has led to some very inappropriate actions -- and arrests. He attributes these struggles to problems with impulse control and notes he hasn't physically harmed anyone.

That's a key point, because the prospect of violence hangs over conversations, or lack thereof, regarding mental illness -- fairly or unfairly. Mental health advocates note only a tiny minority of those with mental illnesses exhibit violent tendencies. Yet it's a common plot point in TV, film and literature.

And, it is a possibility. One need look no further than to the man behind a youth summit being held this week in Concord. Hosted by Dartmouth-Hitchcock, it will include discussions of mental health issues teens deal with, such as depression, self-harm and eating disorders, plus issues involving bullying, identity and discrimination.

It was prompted by John Broderick, the former chief justice of the N.H. Supreme Court and now senior director of public affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. Broderick has been traveling the state for more than two years, trying to draw attention to the issue of mental illness. It's a topic he knows well. For decades, Broderick's son has dealt with mental illness. The issue came to a head in 2002 when his son severely beat the justice as he slept. Broderick ended up in a hospital, hooked up to a feeding tube; his son wound up in prison.

So yes, those suffering with mental illness can be a threat, and that causes many people to conclude being around them isn't worth the risk. It's easier, they decide, to ignore them -- something few of us would do if we came upon someone bleeding on the sidewalk. That's a big part of Broderick's pitch: that mental illness ought to be treated the same as physical ailments.

In truth, those with mental illness pose far more of a threat to themselves than to anyone else. The fast-rising suicide rates nationally speak to that.

Late last month, in a span of days, two survivors of the 2018 Parkland, Fla., school shooting committed suicide. So did the father of one of the 1st-graders killed in the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. These deaths speak to the lasting reverberations of gun violence in this country, but also to the fragile nature of mental health.

Unfortunately, despite efforts like Broderick's, mental health issues in the state and nation continue to be treated differently than physical issues. The good news, at least in New Hampshire, is the state government, perhaps prodded by the somewhat-related opioid addiction crisis, has started moving in the right direction. Last year, Gov. Chris Sununu unveiled a 10-year mental health plan. And recently, he signed three executive orders on the issue, including a plan to study the intersection of mental illness and the criminal justice system, and finding and retaining more mental health workers.

Those are positive steps, but perhaps what's really needed is for people to see more stories -- more faces -- like Gordon Heckman's, and to realize the scope of the issue.

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(c)2019 The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.)

Visit The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.) at www.sentinelsource.com

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