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Prevalence of Mental Illness the Central Topic of Forum

May 10, 2007 By:
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Abraham Twerski

It might have been the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech, or the fact that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year.

Whatever the reason, Monday-night's mental health forum, held at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, garnered an enormous response: Nearly 800 attendees showed up to hear just what speakers had to say about the matter.

The panel's main guest was Abraham Twerski, a rabbi and psychiatrist who directs a drug-and-alcohol treatment center in western Pennsylvania.

The two other presenters -- John Kevin Hines and Ross Szabo -- revealed their own struggles with bipolar disorder and their attempts at suicide. Both men are educators with the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign.

The forum, titled "Masking Our Problems: Addiction, Depression and Suicide," was sponsored by a new, Ardmore-based organization -- Minding Your Mind: The Foundation for Mental Health Awareness.

Created about six months ago, it was formed to help erase the stigma around mental illness. Co-director Steven Erlbaum said that the group will concentrate on reaching young people, and that it will also educate those within the Jewish community.

This week's event began with some statistics highlighting the pervasiveness of mental illness.

According to fellow co-director Roger Harrison, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, while he noted that mental illness is the second leading cause of productivity loss in the workplace.

Most major illnesses develop between the ages of 16 and 24, said Harrison, whose own son suffers from schizophrenia.

The rabbi focused his words on addictions like binge eating, gambling and drug use.

In his book Addictive Thinking: Understanding Self-Deception -- which was handed out to everyone in the audience -- he explained that people who are dissatisfied with life develop addictive thinking to escape from reality. He also chronicled ways that distorted thinking can hinder recovery via 12-step programs that are faith-based.

He said the antidote to what he calls "chronic discontent" is to feed the body "spiritual nutrients."

"Addictions, whatever they are, are not cured by willpower alone," nor are they "going to improve one iota with all the drugs in the world," said the rabbi. "And that's where religion comes in -- to give us our focus and a sense of meaning in life."

The rabbi did not mention statistics on such ailments within the religious community.

Szabo, the director of youth outreach for the Mental Health Awareness Campaign -- a national entity based in Washington, D.C. -- praised Twerski's approach, and said that in addition to purpose, spirituality brings a much needed element of hope to those who suffer.

Though feelings of despondency and isolation can persist, Szabo, who has bipolar disorder, stressed only a small minority of mentally ill patients are actually too sick to function in society.

"The majority of people, if they work at it, can lead a very functional life," he said, citing the importance of individualized treatment and early diagnosis, alluding to beneficial elements other than religion.

But for Hines, reaching that stage was far from easy.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 17, Hines suffered paranoid episodes (he was at one point convinced that the U.S. Postal Service was trying to assassinate him) and bouts of insomnia.

"I couldn't see past my distorted reality," he said. "I would look in the mirror and hated what I saw."

Back in 2000, Hines tried to kill himself by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. He survived the 220-foot, four-second free fall -- one of only 29 people ever to do so -- and was rescued by the Coast Guard.

Even though he continues to need therapy, Hines told the audience that he has come to realize that life is worth living.

"I thank God every day for being alive," said Hines. "Because I am loved, and I love myself."

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