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Acadiana Lifestyle

The Misunderstood Illness

05/15/2018 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey

Addressing Mental Illness

By Patrice Doucet

In a world full of bias, hundreds of thousands in Louisiana, alone, fight against the stigma associated with mental illness. Unfortunately, for many of us, our only understanding of mental illness is limited to what we see on TV and hear in the news- mostly violence related, drawing a picture of a group thought to be incompetent, dangerous, untidy and unrelatable.

“Mental illness is not necessarily a psychotic disease,” says therapist Tanya Anderson, M.Ed.,LPC, “Any time you take a person out of their comfort zone and it changes their life, like in the case of a home flooding, then you’re looking at a possible trigger for anxiety; some forms of anxiety are a form of mental illness.”

Surprisingly, there are over 200 mental disorder diagnoses listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, that include disorders of attention deficit, Internet gaming, mood, anxiety, sleep-wake and a slew of others that you or a family member might be experiencing now.

According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over 800,000 adults and children in Louisiana experience a diagnosable mental disorder each year. Yet, a 2015 Mental Health America report ranks Louisiana 47th for overall mental health care, meaning the state has a high prevalence of mental illness and scarce access to care. To add to these daunting figures, there is a mental health workforce shortage across the country.

Phyllis Babineaux, MSW, LCSSW, a social worker who has helped the mentally ill for 13 years, says, “There’s a big gap between when patients first recognize symptoms and when they get help.” She has diagnosed depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, grief, ADHD and many more disorders, in her private practice, where 75 percent of her clients are under 25. This is in line with stats from the National Alliance on Mental Health, reporting that half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14 and three quarters by age 24.

“Many people tend to be judgmental about mental illness,” says Babineaux; “for instance, a common misconception is that they are unemployable.” Fact is, there are many mentally ill people in the workforce who are controlling their illness with medication. Babineaux says that jobs best suited for people with mental disorders are those that give them a sense of self-worth and accomplishment, whether that’s volunteering, returning to school, or performing a job that they were previously trained or educated to do.

Babineaux also helps teachers and other school personnel recognize the early warning signs of mental illness and emphasizes the importance of early intervention. “I’ve seen children as young as five with mental illness and some of it is circumstantial, depending on what’s going on at home,” she says.

Supervisor of School Counselors for Iberia Parish School Board, Darlene French, helps identify behavioral problems or severe mental health issues in students from Pre-K to 12th grades. She says, “When a child is getting out of the desk and screaming, talking to people who aren’t there or rocking back and forth, we need to get to the root of the problem and find out what’s causing the behavior.” French says these behaviors often point to traumas like molestation, physical abuse, or drug use among the parents.

“Mental illness is an illness of the brain, just like diabetes is an illness of the body that needs to be treated. We want to find out what’s causing the behavior at school and do something about it so that these children can have a successful academic school year and for the safety of others,” says French. When behaviors become severe, a District Behavior Support Team steps in, providing a behaviorist, phycologist, counselors, a nurse and a 504 representative. French is quick to point out that it takes more than one visit to help a mentally ill child. It also takes someone to connect to.

Catherine Wattigny, RN, and retired Coordinator of Special Education Healthcare with 24 years experience, knows the importance of a support system in helping treat someone with mental illness. She’s seen mental illness in its earliest stages and says, “When a loved one has a psychiatric disorder it’s a challenge for the whole family: parents, siblings, spouses and friends. The willingness to come to come together as a unit, accept the diagnosis, look for help, go beyond criticism, blame and judgement is vital to recovery. Denial and disapproval will only worsen the situation.”

Wattigny and her husband Dean, both New Iberia natives, have spent the last two years educating the public on mental illness, trying to disarm the stigma. In a meeting last year, they heard area counselors voice the need for a caregivers’ support group - and acted.
Through their efforts, a grant was awarded by the Iberia Parish Foundation, an affiliate of the Community Foundation of Acadiana, making possible the Iberia Mental Health Initiative, the first family support group in Iberia Parish for family members and caregivers of the mentally ill.
Therapist and Program Manager, Tanya Anderson will facilitate the support groups intended for those living with or giving emotional, practical, or financial support to individuals who suffer from some form of mental illness. Anderson has counseled the mentally ill as well as parents and children for 11 years.

One of the main goals of the Iberia Mental Health Initiative is to reiterate that mental illness is not shameful. “These will be production sessions,” say Wattigny “learning coping strategies and recognizing ‘triggers’ like a death, financial stress – even the birth of a baby, that can add responsibility and financial burden. Caregivers will be encouraged to take care of themselves, and we’ll offer resources in the community.”

“It’s an opportunity to share in a safe and confidential setting,” adds Anderson. “Talking about mental illness, educating people - that’s how we build a stronger foundation in fighting the disease. When you start to see small signs not characteristic of a person, reject the stigma of not talking to them. Talking is therapeutic and many who suffer from mental illness would prefer to have someone to talk to. The greatest impact we can have on patients and society is to help, not ignore mental illness.”

The caregivers’ support group will be held the fourth Tuesday of each month at the First United Methodist Church, at 119 Jefferson St., from 6-7p. The first group starts May 22. For more information, go to or like us on Facebook: Iberia Mental Health Initiative.
Dean and Catherine Wattigny of Iberia Mental Health Initiative, Inc., accept Proclamation from Iberia Parish President M. Larry Richard designating the Month of May as Mental Health Month.

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