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Speaking Their 'Mind': Understanding Mental Illness

May 6, 2010 By:
Daphna Berman, JE Feature
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Exploring "Mysteries of the Mind" over the years is Linus Roache.

Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Woolf and the cartoonist Charles Schultz all suffered from some form of mental illness, and come May 10, the three -- as well as other prominent historical and literary figures -- will come to life on stage in Wynnewood, courtesy of prominent actors, to discuss the struggles they faced.

The performance, "Mysteries of the Mind," is part of the fifth annual mental-health forum of Minding Your Mind, an organization based in Ardmore that sends professionals to speak at area schools about the importance of mental health.

The organization was founded five years ago by Steven and Amy Erlbaum, active members at Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood, where "Mysteries of the Mind" will be performed at 7 p.m., hosted by Risa Vetri Ferman, district attorney of Montgomery County.

"Mental illness is everywhere," said Rabbi Neil Cooper, the temple's religious leader, "and so it's important to bring it out into the open, promote awareness, and have a conversation about mental health.

"In the Jewish community," he added, "it can be considered a shandah, and so it's time to break down the stigma. It's the kind of thing that people say, 'This doesn't happen to Jews,' and we are trying to dispel that."

The statistics surrounding mental illness are jarring. Most teen hospitalizations today are a result of a suicide attempt, according to figures provided by Minding Your Mind.

Pennsylvania has the highest U.S. admission rate for teenage girls into psychiatric hospitals for suicide attempts. On average in the United States, one young person dies by suicide every two hours.

For every completed youth suicide, it is estimated that at least 100 attempts were made.

Additionally, few people who suffer from mental illness seek treatment; an estimated three out of 10 people who need help seek it out, according to the group.

"We felt that there was a huge void," Amy Erlbaum said of the reasons for founding the organization. "We want parents, teachers and students to have as much awareness about mental illness as they do about cancer, diabetes and peanut allergies."

The importance of mental-health awareness, she added, is particularly timely in light of the recent suicide that rocked the University of Pennsylvania campus, after football team co-captain and Wharton School junior Owen Thomas took his life.

"This is the last frontier of illnesses that people are still ashamed about," added Christine Berrettini, executive director of Minding Your Mind.

As part of the forum, a number of well-known actors, including Linus Roache from "Law & Order" and Edi Gathegi from "Twilight" and "New Moon," portray prominent literary and historical figures who struggle with issues surrounding their mental illness.

Other figures portrayed include Emily Dickenson, Sylvia Plath, William Styron and Jack Kerouac.

The performance, which is interwoven with music that will be played by the Haverford School Notables, an a cappella group, is a production of Word Theatre, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization.

"People are frightened by what they don't understand, and I hope this helps them understand what it's like to have a mental illness," said Cedering Fox, artistic director of WordTheatre and creator of "Mysteries of the Mind."

In addition, Melissa Ann Hopely, a 21-year-old college senior who struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder -- or OCD -- will speak. And Wade H. Berrettini, the Karl Rickels Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, as well as representatives from the Center for Psychological Services, will also be available.

"As a synagogue, we see an issue in the community, respond to it, destigmatize it and open up discussion," said Rabbi Cooper. "The most common response I get is, 'Thank you for doing this.' "

For more information, see: www.mindingyourmind.org.

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