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Bringing Mental Illness Into the Open Saves Lives

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"A crazed lunatic opens fire at the crowded mall. The psycho shot at least six rounds randomly, and without hitting anyone, before turning the gun on himself. People, many relieved this whacko killed himself, begin to ask the question, "Why?" Why did this sicko bring a gun to a mall, only to in the end turn it on himself."

Every time I hear reporters ask "Why" I want to jump through the TV screen and shake them. It is frustrating to me that the media is still so woefully uninformed about mental health. In so many cases the answer is quite simply untreated or inappropriately treated mental disorders. Knowing the loss of innocent lives could have been prevented is sometimes too much to bear.
When I hear ugly words such as crazy, lunatic, deranged, psycho -- all used by people to describe the perpetrator -- my heart hurts. Though acts of violence are not to be condoned, these words only serve to perpetuate the stigma that creates barriers to treatment that might prevent these tragedies.

The fact is, less than 1 percent of those living with mental illness will ever hurt someone other than themselves. Those with a mental health disorder are more likely to be the victims of a crime and more likely to injure themselves or take their own lives. One in four Americans are living with mental health disorder yet because of stigma, less than 40 percent seek treatment, leaving 60 percent to struggle, self-medicate or end their pain by suicide.

Fear of judgment and ridicule about mental illness compels individuals and their families to protect their "dirty little secret." Instead of seeking treatment, they struggle in silence as not to be labeled a "monster" or "killer." Many of these silent warriors, trying to live productive lives, go underground after a mass shooting. They are terrified someone will figure out their "dirty little secret" and associate them with the perpetrator.

My dear son Kenny was a silent warrior. At the age of 15 he was hospitalized and diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder. Kenny was a kind-hearted, thoughtful, athletic, hard-working, responsible, respectful and bright young man. At the age of six it was determined that he had the long-term memory of a 29 year old. Many people don't understand that individuals who struggle with mental illness tend to have an IQ at least 10 points higher than the average population. Kenny was a star swimmer who inspired his teammates and as a lifeguard, humbly saved a young boy's life. Kenny, whose smile and personality would light up a room, had many friends. He was kind-hearted, often giving his clothes to hospitalized youth from foster care while he himself was in the hospital. I couldn't have asked for a better son.

Unfortunately, Kenny was embarrassed by his illness and told his peers that he had mononucleosis. As his illness progressed, it became more and more difficult for him to keep his "dirty little secret." Students began treating him differently, and shockingly
uninformed educators repeatedly called him lazy.

Kenny struggled for over three years to get well, earnestly complying with treatment demands but on May 19, 2009, Kenny lost hope of being "normal." He was afraid of becoming the "psycho monster" portrayed by the media. His pain was unbearable and sadly, he lost his battle with mental illness and ended his life.

In response to the discrimination that surrounded both Kenny's life and death, AIR -- Attitudes In Reverse -- was born. Mental illness is like air. Just because you don't see it doesn't mean it isn't there. It is all around us. Attitudes In Reverse is a 100 percent volunteer-driven 501(c)(3) organization with the mission of educating youth about good mental health. AIR volunteers have presented to approximately 13,000 students in three different states, letting students know it's okay to "ask permission" to seek treatment for a biological illness. We teach students that no one chooses to be mentally ill.

One student said, "Thank you for making me aware of the possibility that I could have a mental illness. After the AIR presentation at my high school, I began to look into mental illnesses and this past September, I was diagnosed with depression and a social anxiety, and I got help. So thank you for giving the presentation and ultimately helping me to make the decision to get help and save my life."

Each time I hear of the deaths that result from a senseless shooting, I am filled with grief for ALL who lost their lives, including the person with the gun, knowing full well this is not a popular stance. When it's over, I don't ask "Why." I think, "What if?" What if the shooter had been able to identify symptoms, receive a diagnosis and begin treatment in the early stages of his illness? What if there were no stigma and he was surrounded by the kind of understanding that would have supported his recovery? Could ALL of these lives have been saved? We can't change the past, but I am hopeful that through Attitudes In Reverse, sharing our story and what we've learned along the way, we can start a mental health revolution, and create a world where youth feel safe to come out of the shadows of stigma and get the help they need.

This post is part of a series co-produced by The Huffington Post and L'Oréal Paris to celebrate the Women of Worth program, honoring women making a beautiful difference in the world. The ten 2013 Women of Worth honorees are pursuing their passions to accomplish the extraordinary through philanthropic efforts in their communities. Bound by a deep sense of purpose and appetite for change, these women were chosen from thousands of applicants, and each received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oréal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning Spring 2014, please visit womenofworth.com.