We assume a gunman who commits a horrendous crime has a mental illness. We are confident a mental illness is behind those hilarious/sad public outbursts that have been burning up Facebook and Twitter and keep late-night comedians and celebrity "news" anchors busy. We suspect a few people with mental illnesses even host talk shows on cable news networks.
But many people with mental illnesses do something that may surprise many Americans -- they recover.
"A lot of people don't know how many people have recovered," says Tica King, a veteran peer counselor at the Kenneth Young Center, an Elk Grove Village-based not-for-profit community center that provides mental health and senior services.
A typical suburban kid, King was a cheerleader at Cary-Grove High School before her family moved to Pennsylvania when she was 16. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor's degree in sociology and held jobs in Minnesota and California. But when she was 26 years old, King quit her public relations job in San Diego, took a road trip in her Dodge Colt and veered into a strange new world where she would venture out wearing a nightgown and cowboy boots or engage in other unorthodox behavior.
"I kept thinking the world was asleep and I have to wake it up. I thought I was right and the world was wrong," King remembers, noting that her grandiose thoughts were typical of people with her mental illness. "I didn't think I had a problem. I thought everyone else had a problem."
She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1978. Her worried parents brought her back to Chicago.
"I was on some of the strongest medication," King says. "They were called 'chemical restraints' because of what the medicine does to the person. I was pretty much catatonic. The psychiatrist told my parents I'd probably be a vegetable the rest of my life."
King had times where she couldn't even speak, but her parents didn't give up, and neither did she or the doctors treating her. King remembers the day when making a cup of tea by herself was a breakthrough accomplishment. She used better medications, got expert counseling, took care of herself and stopped having schizophrenic episodes by 1985. King got a job, met the love of her life ("I tell people that he drove me sane"), got married in 1990 and for the last dozen years has been a counselor at the Kenneth Young Center.
"She's one of my idols," says Mitchell Bruski, chief executive officer of the center. King is living proof that people with mental illnesses can recover.
"Recovery is a new notion. You are not going to be disabled forever," Bruski says. "You don't have to be a prisoner of your illness. You can be a participant in your health."
Eating right, sleeping well, taking advantage of innovative cognitive behavioral therapy that sets goals and monitors behavior, and using new medicines that target problems without the debilitating side effects help people recover, says King, who looks and acts younger than her 59 years.
"Mental illness has been good to me," King says with a chuckle. She says she treats her mental illness the same way people with diabetes treat their illness -- with medication, support, hope, advocacy, personal responsibility, education and spirituality.
Cancer patients boast about surviving their illnesses. People with mental illnesses should, too.
"It (mental illness) is a small part of who I am," King says. "People are realizing, 'Yeah, I can have a life.'"
That progress in treating mental illnesses is offset by cuts in mental health spending during a time when wars, the recession, unemployment and other stresses increase the need for services.
"There's always an ebb and flow, but this is the worst in my lifetime," says Bruski, who is 62 and worked in the field before he came to Kenneth Young 25 years ago. The state owed the center more than $1.5 million last year until an end-of-the-year payment came through, Bruski says. Now that tab is $700,000. The center has to borrow money to keep things going, and funding isn't as much as it once was.
"It's about the 250 people who aren't going to be receiving services," Bruski says of the damage caused by the cuts.
King is promoting the annual fundraiser "Walk" through Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village on May 7. (See www.kennethyoung.org or phone (847) 524-8800 for details.) The more money they raise, the more people such as King can recover.
"I look at mental illness as a gift," King says. "My mental illness has given me compassion for people, respect for life and the realization that people are so much more than you see on the outside."