Speaking up about mental illness to combat stigma

When he’s with friends in college, Dan Olguin said, he sometimes feels like he’s leading a double life. He’s wary of how people will react if he tells them he has bipolar disorder, so he avoids talking about his past or letting them know he survived a life-altering crisis.

Statistics suggest Olguin is far from alone. One study found that nearly half of college-age young adults have had a psychiatric disorder in the past year. Olguin said more than a quarter of college students have been diagnosed or treated for a mental health condition in the past year.

“If even a fraction of this percentage was to open up about their illness, everyone would know someone with mental health problems,” he said. “I think that when people see what people with mental health problems are really like, it would be harder to carry on the stigma.”

Olguin, who’s 20 and from West Hartford, was one of several people who opened up about their experiences with mental health or addiction at the state Capitol Wednesday as part of a program aimed at combating stigma.

There’s been a renewed focus on addressing mental health issues in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and lawmakers are looking at ways to improve the system.

Policies and legislation can help improve the mental health system, state Healthcare Advocate Victoria Veltri said. But unless the stigma surrounding the conditions is addressed, she said, people won’t seek help.

“One of the biggest barriers to overcoming the disparity in treatment between mental health and substance use and traditional physical health or medical services is really this discrimination and the ongoing stigma that families feel and individuals feel,” said Veltri, who hosted the event with state Child Advocate Jamey Bell, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Connecticut, and the nonprofit advocacy group Connecticut Turning to Youth and Families.

That group’s co-director, Greg Williams, described his own addiction, which lasted from ages 14 to 17, and urged people to think of addiction as a pediatric illness. In Connecticut, about 8 percent of youth aged 12 to 17 and 24 percent of those ages 18 to 25 meet the medical criteria for alcohol or drug abuse or dependence, he said, citing a 2012 report prepared by the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee staff.

“Nine out of 10 people with a substance use disorder started using in their adolescence,” Williams said. “If you picture a homeless person on the street as a person who is the addict, the junkie, the crackhead, the bum, the scumbag, all the words that people use to describe people like me, if that’s who you picture, picture them as a 15-year-old kid because that’s when their addiction started.”

Williams made a documentary, “The Anonymous People,” which is about the millions of Americans in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

“People don’t see people in recovery for mental health or addiction issues, and that’s sad because we’re just as big, if not more important, a part of the conversation than the dysfunctional side of some of those issues,” he said. “So it’s time that people in recovery start to step forward and change the conversation, change the story around addiction.”

Mark Mahurin introduced himself as a U.S. Army veteran, recreational pilot, former health-care worker and top law student who is studying to learn how to operate nuclear reactors. He also has post-traumatic stress disorder and tried to cope with it by using marijuana, alcohol, crack and heroin.

Mahurin said he never encountered stigma before he got treatment. He’d been in denial about the drugs and unaware of the PTSD.

Some of what he encounters is silly, he said, like the relative who whispered at a family gathering, “Should Mark be handling the barbecue fork?”

“This same individual, who used to talk to me normally, now talks to me in the same tone of voice one usually reserves for talking to a 5-year-old child who’s holding a hand grenade,” he said.

He tried to volunteer pushing wheelchairs at the VA hospital, but when officials saw his diagnosis from medical records, the background check, character witnesses and affidavits required led him to change his mind.

In a coffee shop, he was talking to a fellow veteran about PTSD when a woman sitting nearby barged into the conversation, and told him it was his fault — if he hadn’t “gone overseas to murder babies and women and children,” it wouldn’t have happened.

Then, he said, the woman saw his keychain, which had a tag on it from a 12-step program. “She pointed to them and said, ‘You’re not sick. You’re a druggie,’” he said. “In her mind, that was a demotion from baby killer.”

Most people probably assume his PTSD came from his service, but Mahurin said it didn’t. It came before that, from being abducted and raped at knifepoint when he was a child.

“That is a difficult and challenging set of memories to learn how to properly process, and it has taken me the better part of four decades to learn how to do so,” he said. “I have forgiven myself for the mistakes I have made along the way. I wonder what the woman in the coffee shop would have said about that.”

“We are not mental illness. We are not drug addiction,” Mahurin said. “We have our good days and our bad, we have nightmares but we have powerful dreams as well. We are human beings. We are no more than that, and when we raise our hands, we are no less.”