The idea that mental illness is a shanda (shame) or horrific secret has changed significantly — but not enough, say Si and Ellie Schorr. In the 1970s, when they were raising a child who showed signs of mental illness, people didn’t talk about such things. “The stigma was not only on the child but on the parents, particularly the mother,” says Si.
Years later, the experience of raising a child who has a mental illness has taught the couple that “mental illness is very treatable — the brain can become ill just like any other part of the body,” says Ellie.
The Schorrs, who are both attorneys, have been actively pursuing a more open path to dealing with mental illness for more than 30 years. In 1995, they announced the formation of the Schorr Family Award for Distinguished Contribution in Furthering Public Understanding of Mental Illness, established through the University of Arizona Foundation and the UA College of Medicine.
This year’s Schorr Family Award will be presented to Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, at a free community forum on mental illness featuring national speakers and local experts. “A Delicate Balance: Creating a Better Post-January 8 System to Protect the Public and Help Persons with Serious Mental Illness,” will take place on Wednesday, April 27 from 1:45 to 5 p.m. at Centennial Hall on the University of Arizona campus. Insel will deliver the keynote address, “Trying to Understand Serious Mental Illness — January 8.”
Ron Barber, district director for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and former district program administrator for the state Division of Developmental Disabilities, will also speak at the forum. Giffords and Barber were both seriously wounded in the Jan. 8 shooting. He and his family have since launched the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding.
Other speakers will include Dr. Ken Duckworth, assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School and medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness; Dr. Joel Dvoskin, UA College of Medicine; Laurie Flynn, executive director, TeenScreen National Center, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center; Neal Cash, president/CEO, Community Partnership of Southern Arizona; Clarke Romans, executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness of Southern Arizona; and John Pedicone, Tucson Unified School District superintendent.
In the ’70s, there were no such community discussions for the Schorrs to attend. Ellie began reading, educating herself about mental illness and her child’s symptoms. “It was hard to get a diagnosis for a number of years,” Ellie told the AJP, and finally, “we had to go to UCLA for a real diagnosis,” which was schizoaffective disorder.
“We went off on tangents that were unproductive and frustrating for years,” adds Si.
When they did get the diagnosis, “I wasn’t surprised,” says Ellie, who had observed her child’s behavior over the years.
If major mental illness presents at an early age, children “miss developing certain skills,” says Ellie, but it’s important to get a diagnosis. When teens first show symptoms of mental illness such as hearing voices, delusional thinking or presenting a totally flat affect (not seeming to connect with others or be present), families may determine that they “are acting out or being difficult, and may get tired of dealing with this bad behavior which they don’t understand,” says Ellie. “Early diagnosis may ward off substance abuse” that can arise from an attempt to self-medicate and mask the underlying mental illness. In fact, says Si, “substance abuse and alcohol exacerbate illness.”
But for many, early diagnosis of serious mental illness doesn’t come easy. “Schools are not set up to deal with mental illness,” notes Ellie, who in 1989, as a member of the Arizona legislature, proposed Arizona’s Fourth Standard of Commitment.
Rather than relying on the criterion of a person’s dangerousness to himself or others, common in many states, the Arizona statute also allows involuntary commitment for a person who is “persistently or acutely disabled” because of mental illness. “It seemed better than leaving people on the street, not being able to take care of themselves,” says Ellie, adding that many organizations were against the bill. There was a “huge fight about its constitutionality.”
But Ellie had help. She went to Gov. Jan Brewer, who was a State Senator in the early 1990s. Brewer asked “does it help the mentally ill?” The possibility of a first-term Democrat getting the bill through was low, says Ellie. “As a Republican, she was able to get it through.”
Ellie is founder and past president of NAMISA and a former board member of NAMI. Former President Bill Clinton appointed her to the advisory board of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Center. Si chaired the Arizona Governor’s Task Force on the Seriously Mental Ill from 1989 to 1991.
Previous Schorr Family Award recipients have included Mindy Bernstein, executive director of Tucson’s Our Place Clubhouse/ Café 54, a vocational and rehabilitation training program for people recovering from mental illness; Howard Dean, M.D., former governor of Vermont, Democratic Party chair and advocate for mental health parity; and Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and author of “An Unquiet Mind,” a memoir about her own experiences with manic-depressive illness [bipolar disorder].
In addition to initiating the award, the couple’s advocacy for people with serious mental illness continues, even in the current economic climate. “Money is being taken away from services for the seriously mentally ill, and is very diminished to the very poor. They can’t get their correct medications,” says Ellie. It would be nice to think that prior to the current economic downswing, “we were on an upward trajectory, but we weren’t,” says Si. “The failure to adequately address the problems of the mentally ill is a bipartisan failure.”
For more information, call 784-5365 or visit www.cpsarbha.org.