Peterson: Mental health awareness from within

It is no secret that I have mental illnesses. I describe them as a blessing, not a curse.

Left untreated, mental illnesses certainly can be seen as a curse, driving people into deep depression, sending them into dangerous manias, hearing frightening voices, having fitful nights of sleep, wishing they were dead.

Mental illnesses are widespread in the United States. Twenty percent of all adult Americans experience mental illness each year – 60 million people – and half of all Americans in their lifetimes will experience symptoms of a mental health or substance use disorder.

According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, only 38 percent of adults with diagnosable mental health problems, and only 11 percent of those with diagnosable substance use disorders, received needed treatment in 2011.

And while three-quarters of mental illnesses appear by age 24, less than 20 percent of children and adolescents with diagnosable mental illnesses and substance use problems receive treatment, according to a summary of the 2013 hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on “Assessing the State of America’s Mental Health System.”

Treatment is critical to living a life of wellness, to living a life in recovery, to living life to its fullest.

I am an example of a person who lives life to the fullest despite having mental illnesses. Without treatment, I might be dead, or at the very least, my life might be dreadful.

I write today because this is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I feel obliged to share my live experiences with mental illnesses with you. No doubt you know someone – quite likely a family member – who has a mental illness. 

I write because I want to help reduce the stigma that often accompanies mental illnesses. People often do not seek treatment because they do not want to admit they have mental illnesses. They see them as a weakness or a character flaw that can be overcome if only they put their minds to it, if only they get over it, if only they pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Were it so easy.

My mental health bottomed out 14 years ago when I was hospitalized in a locked behavioral health unit with bipolar disorder, major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. I wanted to end my life. I was despairing. I saw no hope.

Yet, I sought help with the support of friends and family. I entered the hospital and began my ascent out of the depths of mental illnesses. It would take two years and four or five hospitalizations to put the worst behind me. And it would take years of therapy to regain my wellness, slowly but surely.

Through it all, I kept my demanding job as Opinion Page editor through the good graces of my employer, the Northwest Herald, which did not abandon me but saw that I could still do the job despite the effects of the illnesses.

I was living proof that recovery is possible, that people with mental illnesses are not doomed.

With the right treatment, people with mental illnesses can thrive. And it’s not just for a few fortunate people but for most people with mental illnesses. The Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health’s motto is “Recovery is expected!”

But people need to seek treatment to recover. It is not a journey that can be taken alone. It requires the support of family, friends and health care professionals. It requires patience and persistence. It requires courage and determination. It requires the hope that tomorrow will be better.

But the payoff can be astounding. People with mental illnesses can regain control of their lives. People with mental illnesses can learn more about themselves than they ever imagined possible. People with mental illnesses can be role models in stamping out the stigma associated with the diseases.

One of the stigmas of mental illnesses is that people with them are inherently violent. That simply is not the case. “Most violence has nothing to do with mental illness, and most mentally ill people aren’t violent,” according to the Senate committee. “The most common form of violence by those suffering from mental illness is violence against themselves.”

About 38,000 suicides are committed a year, and 90 percent involve mental illnesses. About 17,000 homicides are committed a year, and less than 5 percent involve mental illnesses. It is treatment that reduces the chance of violence. When adolescents are treated, the risk of violence decreases 15 times, which tells you how important early diagnosis is.

I have mental illnesses, and while I’d rather not have them – who wants any illness? – life certainly is richer and more meaningful. I embrace my mental illnesses as a part of who I am: a person who is well, living life to the fullest.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate. He is a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at

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