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Originally published Friday, October 8, 2010 at 3:08 PM

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Guest columnist

Speaking out to make a difference on mental health challenges

Guest columnist Martha Monfried writes about the months since she told the story of challenge of a family member's mental illness and all the support she has felt. She urges others to speak out.

Special to The Times

IN January, The Seattle Times published my op-ed about my distraught sister who jumped off the 520 bridge on New Year's Day. Thankfully, she was rescued by a holiday boater.

Nine months later, I hope to spur you to action. We must speak out and work together to find a cure for the alphabet soup of brain disorders, from autism to Alzheimer's.

The morning my op-ed appeared, my teenagers asked, "Mom, will it make a difference?" I instinctively replied, "Probably not."

But it has. And, I thank everyone with whom I have connected since then who is dedicated to helping those with a mental illness or a brain disease recover and lead productive lives.

At work, a former company board member called to congratulate me. He shared that his mother had suffered from depression and his daughter experienced mental-health challenges. He and his wife established a foundation to help teenagers.

Several colleagues shared their tragic stories. A woman whose mother suffers from a brain disorder sent flowers, thanking me for having the courage to speak out.

Leaders of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) asked how they could help and invited me to work with them. They all live with the heartbreak of having loved ones with chronic mental illness. With their hands often tied by the system where civil rights come before medical needs, they find solace and hope supporting, educating and advocating for others who share their trauma.

A former hospital executive, whose mother was institutionalized, and his wife, a former professor, whose first husband was murdered by a mentally ill person, are working with area hospitals to build a psychiatric facility.

REI's general counsel told me about Plymouth Healing Communities, where she is a board member, and Mental Health Chaplain Craig Rennebohm, a local hero, who for decades has helped street people in Seattle.

NAMI asked me to speak at its fundraising walk kickoff luncheon. I was honored and also proud to lead TeamPSE. I am now a board member of the state and Eastside NAMI affiliates.

King County opened two Eastside Mental Health Courts. A community mental-health professional is working with the Seattle Police Department and we are moving forward with a Crisis Diversion Center.

The inaugural class graduated from Seattle University's Mental Health Law Clinic, the first in the country. It was spearheaded by Russell Kurth, defense attorney and instructor, whose sister has a mental illness, and Liz Browning, whose son suffers from schizophrenia. Browning is now working to build a private residential-treatment facility in Seattle — another first.

The Thomas C. Wales Foundation is planning a mental-health symposium. Linea Johnson, a 24-year-old dynamo with bipolar disorder, and her mother, Cinda Johnson, a special-education professor at Seattle University, are involved. Book contract in hand, they will present at the March 4 and 5 event at UW's Kane Hall. So will Rennebohm, state Department of Social and Health Services Secretary Susan Dreyfus, King County Sheriff Sue Rahr and Dr. Richard Veith, head of UW's Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

The Broadway musical "Next to Normal" is coming to the 5th Avenue Theatre. Local advocates will speak before performances on Feb. 22 (Linea and Cinda Johnson) March 1 (Eleanor Owen, a national and Greater Seattle NAMI founder) and March 3 (Seattle's Dr. Delany Ruston, whose film "Unlisted: A story of Schizophrenia" airs beginning this fall on PBS stations nationwide).

My daughter started a mental-health club at Bellevue High School. I am proud of her.

Schools need to teach about mental health and parents need to intervene early knowing that brain disorders often first strike teenagers.

Take action. Tell your stories. Help your loved ones and others. Mental illness and brain disease can be treated. People can recover and lead productive lives. Others can be helped through research. This is a desperate need and only hope for my sister, 55, who has just been diagnosed with dementia. We all must work together to find a cure.

Martha Monfried is director of corporate communications at Puget Sound Energy and lives in Bellevue.

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