Nevada County woman works at reducing mental health stigma and misconceptions | TheUnion.com

Nevada County woman works at reducing mental health stigma and misconceptions

While a child growing up in an Illinois middle class suburb, Jenny Gray idolized her mother.

An anomaly in a 1960s and '70s conservative Midwestern town, Gray's mom was one of a small handful of people to speak out against the Vietnam War. She was deeply shaken when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was slain and she would not let her daughter frequent a country club that shunned Jews.

"My mother was my hero — a truth seer and extraordinary woman," said Gray. "My friends would come to her for advice and wisdom."

Gray's parents divorced while she was still a toddler, but it wasn't until she was 13 that she started to notice big changes in her mother, who was raising two daughters alone. Stress began to prevent her from holding down jobs, then she became increasingly paranoid, and finally outright delusional. Keeping up the home became nearly impossible, and there was no money coming in. The house was falling apart and one day the garage roof caved in.

“My project is about having compassion for people struggling with mental illness, just as we have compassion for people with cancer or heart disease.”

— Jenny Gray, mental health worker

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"My sister and I felt so much shame," said Gray. "When friends' parents drove us home we were embarrassed. We felt judged harshly. Neighbors would write threatening notes instead of offering to help."

Stigma can be 'crippling' to care

Gray was just 14 when her mother was hospitalized. Despite a reluctant sense of relief, she and her 16 year old sister were left to fend for themselves for more than a year until a classmate's wealthy family finally took them in.

Understandably, this experience shook Gray to the core. Her mother, who is now in her 80s and living in a psychiatric nursing home, has since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. While over the past few decades much progress has been made in terms understanding mental illness and recognizing the need for family intervention, Gray remains deeply committed to combating stigma. At age 51, she decided to go back to school to earn her master's degree in social work and is now a mental health worker in Nevada County.

"I am passionate about reducing the crippling stigma surrounding mental illness," she said. "I've know first-hand that people are so much more than their illness. My mission is to start a broader conversation about stigma, which is the greatest impediment to people accessing services and receiving help. Too often people are afraid to reach out. When we talk about stigma we're really talking about discrimination — be it employment, housing or adequate health care."

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five people will experience a mental health condition in their lives and one in 25 will experience a serious mental health illness.

"In other words, most people in our society will be touched by mental illness in some fashion," said Gray. "People ask me if it is difficult working with folks who have a serious mental illness and I passionately tell them, 'No.' What is difficult is the stigma that perpetuates the lack of decent mental health legislation and policy, which results in very limited funding and a dearth of mental health services for people who need them most. People with mental illness are more likely to encounter law enforcement than receive medical help during a psychological crisis. There are more mentally ill people in jails than hospitals and they have high rates of homelessness."

In light of the recent shootings in Florida and Las Vegas, Gray says that news reports have contributed to a misconception that most mentally ill people have violent tendencies.

"Lawmakers and people in the media are quick to blame violence on people they inadvertently deem 'the mentally ill,' but most people who have committed a mass murder have not had a diagnosable mental illness," she said. "In 2016 The American Psychiatric Association published an article stating that mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1 percent of all yearly gun-related homicides. The fact is the overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3 percent. To lump all incidences of violence on mental illness is grossly inaccurate and damaging, and it adds to the stigma that is endured by millions of people in our country who experience mental illness."

Common misconceptions

According to the American Mental Health Counselor's Association, recent events and media coverage have indeed "reinforced the common belief that individuals with serious mental illness are violent and dangerous, especially if they have access to firearms." Some of the most common misconceptions surrounding gun violence and mental illness include:

1. Most persons with serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, are at high risk of committing violence toward others.

2. Serious mental illness is one of the primary causes of gun violence in the U.S.

3. People with serious mental illness are more likely to perpetrate violent crimes than to be victims of violent crime.

But the AMHCA states that these assumptions are grossly inconsistent with the facts:

1. Most people with serious mental illness are never violent. However, small subgroups of persons with serious mental illness are at increased risk of violence during certain high-risk periods, such as during a first-episode of psychosis and the period surrounding inpatient psychiatric hospitalization.

2. People with serious mental illness are rarely violent. Only 3 to 5 percent of all violence, including but not limited to firearm violence, is attributable to serious mental illness. The large majority of gun violence toward others is not caused by mental illness.

3. People with serious mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence — including but not limited to firearm violence — than the perpetrators of violent acts.

4. Rates of violent crime victimization are 12 times higher among the population of persons with serious mental illness than among the overall U.S. population.

A 2014 study of crimes committed by people with serious mental disorders published by the American Psychological Association echoed this research, finding that only 7.5 percent of violent crimes were directly related to symptoms of mental illness.

"When we hear about crimes committed by people with mental illness, they tend to be big headline-making crimes so they get stuck in people's heads," said lead researcher Jillian Peterson, PhD, when interviewed on her research. "The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, not criminal and not dangerous."

Still a long way to go

Gray has made reducing stigma the focus of her master's degree project.

"My project is about having compassion for people struggling with mental illness, just as we have compassion for people with cancer or heart disease," she said. "We need to raise awareness and start a conversation. There's a lot of misinformation out there and people with mental illnesses are not to be feared."

The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests ways to stop sigma on their website. These include talking openly and honestly about mental health, educating yourself and others, being conscious of any derogatory language used and speaking out to correct it, encouraging equality between physical and mental illness, letting the media know when they are stigmatizing with phone calls or letters, being honest about treatment and not harboring self-stigma.

Through her research and while working as a counselor and in a crisis stabilization unit, Gray said the dire need for services "hit her like a ton of bricks." New legislation, housing, intervention and education on mental illness are all key when it comes to change.

"I'm seeing the younger generation being able to better talk about mental illness and name it, so that is hopeful," she said. "I see now that my mom and our family was ostracized due to stigma, and while it's getting better, we still have a long way to go. My mother was a wonderful person. With compassion and the right intervention we would not have experienced deep shame and hardship. Things have got to change."

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Mental health resources:

Nevada County Behavioral health: 530-265-1437.

Dial 211 for more information on community programs and resources.

24 hour crisis line: 530-265-5811.

Mental Health Urgent Care Unit: Open for walk-ins from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 145 Glasson Way in Grass Valley.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) local chapter: 530-648-0178.