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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: Why does mental illness, which affects millions of Americans, remain so stigmatized and misunderstood?

My son, Mike, finally heard the last voice calling out to him from nowhere and saw the last terrible scene that was only in his mind. He died in his sleep on July 28, 1992. He often told me that, if he could, he'd just "lie down and go to sleep forever, to end it all." He had battled the devastating illness of schizophrenia for many years -- and although the disease did not kill him, it made him pray to die.

No one should have to endure what schizophrenia does to the mind, but worse is what society does to its sufferers. If my son had been stricken with cancer, he would have received sympathy. Because he suffered instead from a mental illness that sometimes made him do weird things, he was treated as less than an animal by some people. Professionals in the judicial system referred to him as a "sorry piece of human flesh." He was shunned by people with whom he yearned to be friends, and ignored by some family and church members. He once confided that sometimes people would say they would be his friend and then, when they found out about him, they left.

Please, Abby, urge your readers who don't understand mental illness to try to. There is such a volume of information available today that there's no excuse for being ignorant about it. Mental illness affects one out of every four families. Please tell your readers that if they know anyone who's suffering from mental illness, to reach out. Look beyond the illness to the inner person. They need friends.

I only wish more people had gotten to know the Mike that a few in his life looked beyond the illness and found. -- JEAN KEY, PRESIDENT, UPPER-CUMBERLAND ALLIANCE FOR THE MENTALLY ILL, COOKEVILLE, TENN.

DEAR MRS. KEY: Please accept my deepest sympathy on the loss of your beloved son. Perhaps your letter will provide insight to people who label the mentally ill as "weird" or "crazy," and fail to recognize that they are people with biologically based brain disorders.

More than 12.5 million families in the United States face the challenge of mental illness. For too many years the mentally ill and their families have been blamed and stigmatized. Often the stigma is more difficult to deal with than the disease itself, compounding the pain and sense of isolation.

In many parts of the country, it is difficult to find non-medical services for those with mental illness. Social, vocational and housing services are not available -- leaving the family to shoulder the entire burden of attending to the daily needs of their mentally ill family member.

More than half of the American public knows someone who has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness -- a family member, a friend or a co-worker -- yet stigmas and stereotypes persist. This shame keeps people who need it from seeking treatment and from reaching out for support from their communities. Yet with treatment, many people with mental illness can function in society.

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill is a national umbrella organization for local support and advocacy groups for individuals and families affected by serious mental illness. The toll-free helpline (1-800-950-NAMI; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT) provides emotional support, referrals to local organizations and printed information to persons with serious mental illness and their family members. For further information, write: NAMI, 200 N. Glebe Road, Suite 1015, Arlington, Va. 22203-3754.

Abby shares more of her favorite, easy-to-prepare recipes. To order, send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, More Favorite Recipes, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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