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Charlene Cummings has lived with four mental illnesses for more than 20 years. Cummings, 57, said she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, schizoaffective disorder and borderline personality disorder.

“I like to call them challenges,” she said, “because I know they can be overcome. I know I suffer from them, but I’m learning to cope. I’m learning how to teach others or to help others better manage their illnesses and symptoms.”

The National Institute of Mental Health reported that one in four adults, or about 57.7 million Americans, will experience a mental health disorder in a given year.

According to “2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings,” published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “an estimated 45.6 million adults 18 or older in the U.S. had any mental illness in the past year.”

Nationally, 44.5 million people 18 and older (19.7 percent of that population) experienced a mental illness in a past year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health Report based on 2008 and 2009 data, released by SAMHSA in October 2011. The report also states that Maryland had the lowest such rate in the nation, 16.7 percent.

Amy Henderson, the president and CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southern Maryland, said the organization estimates, based on national averages, that of the more than 300,000 people in Southern Maryland, about 3,000 live with schizophrenia, 5,000 live with bipolar disorder and “there could be as many as 10,000 or 20,000” people living with depression.

Cummings, originally from Los Angeles, moved to a Prince George’s County apartment with her family and several other people in 1961.

“My combined family was very dysfunctional. I was abused beyond explanation, severely — every form of the word ‘abuse,’ I suffered,” she said, adding that she believes that trauma is what led to her diagnoses.

She said that in 1993, after essentially being locked in her bedroom for 22 years, she was taken from the home by adult protective services. Then, in 1998, she began living on her own in an apartment in Leonardtown.

Cummings has been involved in Pathways, a private, nonprofit organization specializing in a range of mental health services to those 17 and older. Pathways’ programs include psychiatric consultation and medication management; outpatient treatment and counseling for individuals, couples and families; recovery support and supportive living arrangements; and vocational support, according to the organization’s website.

Although Pathways calls St. Mary’s home, Gerry McGloin, Pathways’ executive director, said the organization has morphed into a tri-county agency.

He said the agency is one of seven in the state that uses “telemental health,” or live video chats with psychologists in other areas, to treat patients. He explained that this has been successful because St. Mary’s is federally designated as a health professional shortage area. Getting psychologists to come to the area is difficult, he said, due to a nationwide shortage of that type of doctor.

McGloin said the telemental health is “indicative of how severe the shortage is in this area.”

Allen Reynolds, director of mental health services at the Calvert County Health Department, said Calvert has also had trouble getting the doctors it needs to come to the area.

“I’ve pushed to get them down here,” he said, “but it’s hard to get them here … because I can’t afford to pay them.” Reynolds said he has hired psych nurses to accomplish the same goal.

The Calvert County Mental Health Services Division offers diagnostic and medication evaluation; medication management; and individual, family and group therapy to adults and senior citizens, as well as a school-based mental health program that puts a therapist in every public school.

The county also offers a jail program that identifies those in the criminal justice system diagnosed with a mental illness and provides them with evaluations, therapy and case management services.

Calvert also offers a Shelter Plus Care Housing program that places those with a mental illness in their own home or apartment in the community and those with a severe mental illness in a more structured shelter environment.

NAMI of Southern Maryland provides education, support and advocacy for persons with mental illness and their families through support groups, as well as classes for families, individuals and parents or caregivers of young children or adolescents living with mental illness.

Cummings joined NAMI five years ago, and her friend, Henderson, said she could see a difference in Cummings in the short amount of time.

“I was pretty much a basket case,” Cummings said of herself before she first met Henderson at their church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in California, Md., more than 14 years ago.

“If it hadn’t have been for NAMI, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” Cummings said. “I mean, I’ve grown so much. I’ve learned so much. I’ve trained. I’ve met so many people with mental illness like my own. And it makes me know I’m definitely not alone.”

After Henderson got Cummings to attend a NAMI board meeting, Cummings was trained as an In Our Own Voice presenter, a role in which she tells her story to psychology classes, social services and wellness conferences.

“NAMI trains everybody who presents or who leads a group or teaches a class,” Henderson said. “They’re required to have training to do that.”

NAMI’s support groups and classes are all led by peers “for people who have a diagnosis by people who have a diagnosis,” Henderson explained.

Decreasing the stigma

“They’re good people,” Cummings said of the people in her peer-to-peer class. “It’s very stigmatizing to have mental illnesses.

“People with mental illnesses are not violent people,” Cummings said. Henderson added, “particularly if you’re getting the treatment that you need, and sadly, a lot of people don’t get the appropriate treatment.”

Reynolds said, “You’re not mentally ill. You’re living with mental illness. And anyone can become mentally ill at any time, with depression and anxiety and on and on and on.”

He said recent events in the news, “with all the shootings, everybody all of a sudden wants to point their finger at [people with] mental illness, and [they’re] getting a bad rap.”

McGloin said society has the notion that someone with a mental illness is unpredictable and violent, “and that’s not the case.”

Henderson explained that mental illnesses are brain disorders that affect a person’s mood and perception of reality, and interfere with daily living and interpersonal relationships.

“One of the things we try to drive home when we talk about mental illness is that, just like any other illness, they deserve treatment,” Henderson said, adding that when the symptoms of other illnesses come up, they’re treated right away. “Sadly, it’s not that way with mental illness.”

McGloin said much of the stigma that comes with mental illness is the language that is used to describe them. He explained that when people define persons with a mental illness by their illness first, such as “the mentally ill,” it perpetuates the problem.

One of the ways to decrease that, McGloin said, is to “recognize the dignity of that person and not identify them by the illness.”

Cummings’ favorite quote speaks to McGloin’s point: “The humanity we all share is more important than the mental illness we may not,” from Elyn Saks, a lawyer who specializes in mental health law and lives with schizophrenia and acute psychosis.

Christine Baker, acting director of mental health services at the Charles County Department of Health, said, “Unlike a physical illness, there is often a sense of shame attached to those suffering with a mental illness — as though they caused it and somehow it’s their fault. It is not routinely treated with the same regard as a physical illness. Fortunately, the public perception is improving with increased education and awareness.”

The CCDH offers counseling, psychiatric evaluations, medication management and anger management classes. According to William Leebel, CCDH public information officer, the mental health division also offers expressive art therapy as a way for patients to communicate their feelings. And, he said, because patients sometimes focus so much on their mental health and may forget to take care of their overall health, the department offers health and wellness groups for adults, teens and children.

Reynolds, who has worked in the mental health field for more than 30 years, said he has seen some decrease in the negative perception that society has of people living with mental illnesses.

Cummings said she encourages anyone who may be living with a mental illness to reach out and get help. “Don’t be ashamed. It’s scary, but it’s nothing to be scared about,” she said of getting the appropriate treatment.

Henderson, who got involved with NAMI when family members were diagnosed with mental illness and she needed help finding services and support, said it affects an entire family when someone is diagnosed.

“It’s very stressful when someone’s in crisis and you’re trying to find resources and hold things together,” Henderson said. “It’s very scary. It feels like a tsunami washing over your house when something like that happens.”

She said that when that happens, people need to remember to take care of themselves, too, and that it can get better.

“It doesn’t hurt to try to suggest services,” McGloin said, adding that sometimes it can mean the difference between life and death.

Baker said people living with a mental illness need “help, hope and support,” just like anyone else.

“It’s not about being strong enough or smart enough,” Baker said. “It’s not easy asking for help, but it can be life-changing when you do.”

Cummings said she has learned that “I love being who I am. I’m not ashamed of who I am or what I am.”

aharrison@somdnews.com