Saturday, May 7, 2011

Young people with mental illnesses tell their stories in multimedia exhibit in Salt Lake City

From the Deseret News in Utah:

SALT LAKE CITY — Amy Montoya has defied the odds despite a tumultuous childhood.

She's turned the table on a crippling anxiety disorder. She has a story to tell, she says.

This spring, she will graduate from high school with her class. She has earned a certified nursing assistant certificate and works with senior citizens at an assisted living center. She's overcoming obsessive compulsive disorder and dyslexia. She's been in foster care three times. She's five years into the latest placement.

Now, through an ongoing exhibit at the Salt Lake Main Library, Montoya is an advocate for young people with mental illness. Her story, depicted on a poster and a collage of her photographs, is part of a multimedia exhibit, Images of Diversity and Resilience. The exhibit continues through May 8 and is sponsored by the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness - Utah.

Montoya said she agreed to take part in the exhibit to share her story, break down the stigma of mental illness and inspire others.

"I'm not perfect, that's for sure. I learned to be OK with what I have and cope with it no matter what," she said.

Montoya knows a good deal about coping. Her difficult childhood was made harder yet by an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. Her third foster mother recognized the signs of her obsessive compulsive disorder, which were mostly obsessive cleaning of her personal space and hand washing.

"I didn't know it wasn't normal until my foster mom asked me, 'Why are you cleaning all the time? Why are washing your hands all the time?' "

The disorder had advanced to the point that Montoya could not go to sleep unless her bedroom was spotless.

Therapy has helped Montoya better manage her disorder. She still insists upon keeping her personal space organized and clean, but she is able to cope with a roommate who is not as tidy. Instead of OCD placing a hold over her, she has learned to manage it.

Montoya said she wants other young people to understand that her anxiety disorder is not that much different than her father's diabetes. Yet, the general public has many misconceptions about mental illness.

"You shouldn't treat someone differently because they have a mental illness or a disorder. I think it's just rude that people would judge someone on that," she said.

Some of the mental health clients whose posters are on display are participants of PASSAGES, a program funded by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that helps young people in mental health treatment transition into adulthood. Utah's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health is in the second year of a five-year grant to assist children with mental illness, who are at greater risk of homelessness, pregnancy, substance abuse, criminal involvement, depression and suicide.

"They need special assistance as they transition into adulthood," said Ming Wang, program director.

Facilitators who function as life coaches help teach life skills such as independent living, budgeting and social skills. "Basically, we facilitate the process of growing up," Wang said.

Essentially, the facilitators help identify roadblocks and help participants map out ways to overcome those issues. "A large percentage of them go back to school," Wang said.

Palmer DePaulis, executive director of the Department of Human Services, said the multimedia exhibit, which is on the second floor of the library, helps to build the self-esteem of the participants and celebrates their progress in dealing with mental illness and related issues.

It also teaches the general public about mental illness and children. "If we can intervene early, we have such a better chance of helping kids find a better path for themselves," DePaulis said.

According to national statistics, 79 percent of children ages 6 to 17 with mental illness do not receive appropriate care.

Early intervention, DePaulis said, is "an investment in the future of these kids. It pays big dividends."