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Oliver: Speak out to dispel stigma about mental illness

Helpless and powerless, like being on a roller coaster with no one at the controls to make it stop.

That’s what it’s like to deal with mental illness – someone else’s mental illness.

Our three-part series earlier this week brought back memories for me of the struggles of two of my dear friends who are coping with bipolar disorder.

Memories of visits to hospital rooms. Of long conversations at all times of the day and night. Of the terror of not knowing what would happen next. Of tears, both theirs and mine.

It’s exhausting and scary. Very, very scary.

Yet, today they both are doing well. They are living with and successfully managing their mental illnesses.

In the end, mental illness is just a chronic condition that must be dealt with, just as one deals with diabetes, Crohn’s disease or lupus.

Just as in those other instances, the failure to get treatment can prove fatal.

Yet, unlike with those other conditions, mental illnesses often carry a stigma that causes many people to either refuse to get treatment or to stop the treatment they are receiving.

People who are struggling with mental illness aren’t automatically violent. In fact, most are not. Neither of my friends ever posed a threat to anyone but themselves.

The stigma, however, can be particularly dangerous for those who refuse to get help.

That’s the message that I hope readers got from the very powerful story told by Trish and Mike Neal, whose son, Ryan, took his own life in January.

Ryan Neal stopped taking his medications, his parents say, because he no longer wanted to deal with the “labeling that went with it.”

The Neals’ story resonated with me because so many of the things they went through with Ryan were things that I experienced with my friends.

“I tried so many times to get him to go to the doctors,” Trish Neal told reporter Chelsea McDougall.

That conversation, repeated over and over again, is one of the most frustrating things about trying to help.

Sometimes you can get through; sometimes you can’t. No matter how much you want to will your loved ones better, it’s out of your hands.

And even when they finally get help, the journey is far from over.

There are stops and starts while doctor and patient find the right drug and the right talk therapy to make it work – a process that can take months or years.

For me, researching therapies and treatment options put me in a better position to help my friends. I wanted them to know they were not – and are not – alone. 

I applaud the Neals for speaking out and telling Ryan’s story. More of us need to make our voices heard.

Ryan Neal succumbed to an illness, one that in too many instances goes untreated because of perceptions that also need to change.

“Mental health issues are very real,” Mike Neal said. “Society needs to get its head around that.”

I couldn’t agree more.

• Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at

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