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Local Column

Parks: Mental health misperceptions persist

Millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental illness. Each year, mental health providers around the country fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families.

May is Mental Health Awareness month. Mental illness has long been a controversial topic, from causations to treatments to public policy and perceptions. Half of all adults have experienced mental illness at some point during their lives, and the most common form of mental illness, depression, is the leading cause of disability in the U.S.

From popular culture to mass shootings, mental illness permeates mass media like no other time in history.

People in early societies blamed demonic possession for mental illnesses, and many cultures still believe a mental illness reflects a wrongdoing by a family or individual. Today, experts believe that mental illnesses are caused by genetic and environmental factors, malfunctioning chemical messengers, predisposition, extra stress at home or in social settings, and biological components.

Treatments of mental illnesses have been just as widely varied through history as the reasoning behind these afflictions.

The mentally ill used to be institutionalized or locked away in their families’ homes, kept out of sight so as not to “embarrass” their families.

In these institutions, many people were subjected to inadequately performed lobotomies, which often rendered them catatonic. Others were prescribed heavy doses of powerful medications.

As a result of the deinstitutionalization movement, which started in 1955, many mentally ill people were moved out of asylums and could no longer be involuntarily committed unless they presented a danger to themselves or others.

Treatment for mental illness today falls under the categories of psychotherapy, medication, and community support groups, or any combination of the three. Medications include anti-psychotics, antidepressants, anxiolytics (anti-anxiety), and even stimulants.

Films and TV programs depicting treatment of mental illnesses not only show the methods once used to treat mental illnesses, they very often bring up current stigmas.

About 60% of prime-time characters who have mental illnesses are portrayed as being involved with criminal activity. This, combined with the recent uproar over the connections between violence and mental illness, has led some to conclude that people with mental illnesses are more likely to commit crimes.

This is wrong. Only 20% of Illinois’ correctional population has a mental health condition. Most are in for low-level crimes of survival. The mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than the general population, however.

There has been an increase in the mentally ill inmate population. It is largely because there is not widely accessible mental health care for many who suffer from severe mental illnesses and are homeless, poor or struggling with substance abuse. About a third of the homeless population is homeless because of an untreated mental illness. Only about 20% of those struggling with mental illness ever receive professional help.

Mental illness also is connected with substance abuse. Many experts define the nature of this relationship as “self-medicating,” a means to relieve the symptoms of a particular disorder.

Our society has been shaped and molded by the many facets of mental illness for decades. Humane and effective treatments are available for many mental illnesses, as well as support groups found in communities everywhere. Whether it is through medication, group therapy, individual therapy or an alternative form of treatment, mental illnesses are no longer something to be hidden away in a basement or asylum. This speaks to the progress made on an important front in our global culture.

The Center for Counseling is the foundational program of Family Service Agency. Licensed clinicians are on-site to provide therapy in the following (nonexclusive) subjects: Abuse, ADD/ADHD, aging concerns, anxiety, depression, divorce, grief and loss, LGBT concerns, life transitions, parenting, PTSD, stress, and trauma.

Our clinicians also provide trauma assessments for the Children’s Advocacy Center, divorce mediation, family and post-affair counseling, and in-home counseling for seniors and community groups. Our services are covered by most insurance providers, including Medicaid, and financial assistance is also available.  

To learn more about our services or to schedule an appointment, please call 815-758-8616. 

• Colleen Parks is a licensed clinical social worker and associate executive director at Family Service Agency of DeKalb County. Email her at

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