Mental health awareness takes center stage as advocates point to humor’s healing power

‘I got off my belly and began to fly’

SALMON glass art was created in 2011 by Hood River Valley High School students in  memory of Susanna Gabay, who took her own life. The works are a permanent installation in the school science wing built that year.

Photo by Kirby Neumann-Rea
SALMON glass art was created in 2011 by Hood River Valley High School students in memory of Susanna Gabay, who took her own life. The works are a permanent installation in the school science wing built that year.



Poking fun at mental health issues might not be the polite thing to do typically, but people with a diagnosable condition recently the stage in a Hood River comedy show to educate others about the challenges they face and overcome.

“People with mental illnesses are often stigmatized by others, thought of as having an uncommon condition,” said Susan Gabay of Mosier, an advocate for families dealing with short- and long-term disorders.

“The truth is that mental illness can happen to anybody regardless of age, culture, race, gender, ethnicity, economic status or location.”

She said people need to realize that mental illnesses are common and treatable.

Gabay said the Gorge Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mid-Columbia Center for Living decided to kick off National Mental Health Awareness Month with the May 2 comedy show.

The event was free and open to the public, at Columbia Center for the Arts. “The comedians use humor to reduce the stigma and give people with mental health experiences a powerful voice,” said Gabay.

“There’s something incredibly healing about telling a crowd of people exactly who you are and having them laugh and applaud,” stated David Granirer, founder of Stand Up for Mental Health, who has taught therapeutic comedy classes in Canada and the Northwest.

Two of the presenters at the Gorge show were be Dave Mowry and Tara Rolstad, who co-authored the book “No, Really! We Want You to Laugh.”

Mowry, who struggles with bipolar disorder, shared one of his favorite jokes in the book:

“I think there should be a dating service for people with mental illness. I can see the postings now. Paranoid white male seeks paranoid white female to share compound in Idaho. Or paranoid white female seeks male with no government connections.”

Rolstad speaks as a family member who lives with a loved ones’ mental illness. She is the aunt and advocate for her three nieces, who suffered abuse at the hands of their mother and lost their father (her brother) to an illness.

The girls live with PTSD, depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder, with a little traumatic brain injury “to spice things up.”

Rolstad refers to herself as the “token minority” in the comedy troupe because she does not live with her own mental illness.

“To be sure, the last seven years have resulted in the occasional bout of situational depression and vicarious PTSD, but that’s a common side effect for us family members,” she wrote in the book.

She then shared her own brand of humor: “Don’t get me wrong. We love our family members who live with mental illness. Seriously, you inspire us. We want you to be happy, we want you to reach your full potential, and WE WANT YOU TO TAKE YOUR FREAKING MEDICATION!!”

The forward is written by Granirer, who states that most people with mental disorders who take the stage experience therapeutic benefits. Audience members also walk away with a greater understanding of the issues.

“By the way, when I use the word ‘crazy,’ it’s not an insult to people with mental health issues,” wrote Granirer. “It’s our way of taking it back. For years, people have used it to demean us, but I’ve decided they’re not allowed to use it anymore.

“I love telling a so-called ‘normal’ person, ‘Yah, I’m crazy, whatcha gonna do about it?” and watching the panic set in as they look around for the nearest exit,” he wrote.

He said doing standup comedy transformed Mowry by helping him “confront his demons and find humor in some of his most horrible and painful experiences.”

“He’s gone from feeling ashamed and afraid to look people in the eye to being able to tell his story with confidence. Or, as I’d put it, he’s no longer a person with mental illness; he’s a stand-up comic,” wrote Granirer. “The awful stuff that used to weigh him down is now just good material. He’s embraced my comedy principle that the crazier and more dysfunctional you are, the better your act will be.”

Mowry said the effect of comedy has turned him from a “caterpillar into a butterfly.”

“I got off my belly and began to fly,” he wrote in the book. “No longer was I weighed down with guilt and suffering. I was free — free to be the real me that I hadn’t been in years. It was amazing! I could talk to people about my mental illness … When they heard me talk about mental illness in a humorous way, their walls would come down and they would no longer look at me with pity or anxiety or fear … I became a real person.”

The book, published in 2015 by Alagon Press, is available at The Dalles-Wasco County Library and includes serious information about life with mental illness, including what not to say to someone with a disorder and how to adjust expectations in order to be more realistic about their behavior.

Gabay said mental health and mental illness can be pictured as two points on a continuum with a range of conditions in between.

On the serious side, she said the conditions are referred to as mental illnesses and include depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and others that may require treatment and support.

She said recovery is always the goal of treatment, and an essential part of preventing the onset of worsening of mental health conditions is for people to have a healthy lifestyle.

“Eating healthy foods, managing stress, exercising and getting enough sleep can go a long way in making you both physically and mentally healthy,” said Gabay.

She said because so much of what people do physically affects them mentally, the 2018 theme of Mental Health Month is “Fitness #4Mind4Body.”

“Living a healthy lifestyle may help prevent the onset or worsening of mental health conditions, as well as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other chronic health problems,” said Gabay.

Being able to laugh and enjoy life is part of recovery and Gabay said events such as the upcoming comedy show provide a fun and wholesome outlet for people.

She has been actively involved in NAMI and encouraging the “difficult conversation” about mental illness since the 2010 death of her daughter, Susanna Blake Gabay, 21, to suicide. Susanna had suffered from severe depression through her teen and early adult years that stemmed from a chemical imbalance.

“There are things that anybody can do,” Gabay said in a 2017 interview with the Chronicle. “Most people don’t really want to die, they just don’t see any way out and maybe you can divert them long enough for them to get past the immediate crisis.”

For that reason, she urges people to get informed about mental health issues so they become comfortable enough to intervene if necessary.

She said one of the ways they can do that is to attend the comedy show.

“It’s okay to laugh about and talk about it,” she said. “I think we need to normalize it a little bit.”

The facts about mental health

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the largest grassroots organization in America dedicated to bettering the lives of millions who are affected by a mental illness.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and NAMI has issued the following fact sheet to raise public awareness about the challenges facing families and communities:

One in five Americans are affected by mental illness in a given year.

Mental health and substance use disorders cause more hospitalizations among U.S. troops than any other cause.

Mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings each year.

More than 50 percent of adults and children with mental health conditions received no treatment in the past year.

The number one reason that children are admitted to hospitals is for depression or bipolar disorder.

Over 40,000 American lives are lost to suicide each year.

Seventy-five percent of rural and frontier communities do not have any mental health professionals, affecting up to 45 million Americans.

More than eight million Americans provide care to an adult living with mental illness. Three out of four caregivers report high levels of stress.

Two million Americans with mental health conditions languish in jails each year, often because of their illness.

photo

Janie Popour-Hogue

The average delay from the first symptoms of psychosis to treatment in the U.S. is around 74 weeks. In the United Kingdom the wait time is only about seven weeks.

LEARN MORE

For more information about warning signs, or local programs to help people deal with mental health issues, contact susangabay@gmail.com or phone 541-478-3576.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) holds support meetings for families at 10 a.m. the fourth Saturday of each month at the Hood River County Library, 502 State Street.

On the first Thursday, the group meets at 6 p.m. in One Community Health (OCH) at the corner of 10th and Webber streets in The Dalles.

On Saturday, May 26, Janie Popour-Hogue will speak from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the basement conference room of the library in Hood River. Popour-Hogue is clinical services manager for OCH.

For more information about the organization visit www.nami.org.



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