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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In recognition, public service announcements have aired on television and radio. One of every five people in America has a mental health problem. Every 17 minutes, another person will commit suicide. More than 70 percent of young people who suffer from mental illness do not receive the help they need.

As a nation, we have addressed the stigma associated with diseases like cancer and AIDS by expanding our knowledge. We must now apply that same knowledge and understanding to mental illness. To accomplish this, we must create a climate that not only encourages discussion about these issues, but one that also brings mental illness out of the closet and into the realm of physical illness. Science has shown that mental illness is as treatable as physical ailments, and in some cases, MORE treatable. Major depression is treatable in 85 percent of cases, while angioplasty -- a treatment for heart disease -- works only 41 percent of the time.

Before Mental Health Awareness Month ends, won't you please encourage children and parents to talk honestly about mental health and urge them to seek help if they have a mental health issue? By doing so, we can begin to remove barriers to treatment, eradicate stigma and shame, and ensure that more people get the help they need.

Our goal is to create understanding and awareness, and to convey the message that mental illness is no one's fault. Help is available. No one should be ashamed or afraid to reach out for it. Thank you, Dear Abby, for helping to spread the word. -- NANCY RUBIN, NATIONAL MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS CAMPAIGN

DEAR NANCY: I'm delighted to help. Mental health has long been an interest of mine. An area of particular concern today is undiagnosed emotional problems in younger people.

Feelings such as fear and anger are a normal part of life. Understanding mood changes and what triggers them is an important part of knowing who you are. Situations such as divorce in the family or strained relationships with relatives or friends cause emotional stress, making a person feel sad or blue. These feelings are NORMAL.

Certain experiences, thoughts and feelings, however, signal the presence of possible mental health problems or the need for professional help. Parents, doctors and teachers often don't recognize these signs and think of them as indications of their own inadequacy. Punitive behavior and isolation won't make the problem go away. It's important to recognize the following warning signs:

-- Finding little or no pleasure in life.

-- Feeling worthless or extremely guilty.

-- Crying a lot for no particular reason.

-- Withdrawing from others.

-- Severe anxiety, panic or fear.

-- Extreme mood swings.

-- Change in eating or sleeping habits.

-- Losing interest in hobbies and pleasurable activities.

-- Having very low energy.

-- Having too much energy, difficulty concentrating or following through on plans.

-- Feeling easily irritated or angry.

-- Racing thoughts or agitation.

-- Hearing voices or seeing images others do not.

-- Believing others are plotting against you.

-- Wanting to harm yourself or someone else.

It's not always easy to recognize or interpret these warning signs. Qualified mental health professionals should always be consulted to make an accurate diagnosis.

Dear Abby is written by Pauline Phillips and daughter Jeanne Phillips.

Good advice for everyone -- teens to seniors -- is in "The Anger in All of Us and How to Deal With It." To order, send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Anger Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600