Health and happiness: Local family brings support and awareness of mental health to Lake Oconee
Written by Tracey Buckalew
Statistics show that one-in-four individuals have at least one struggle with mental illness at some point in their lives.
Such a statement is hard for many to believe and easier to disregard as being untrue. Why? Because it is upsetting. It’s common for people to deny this truth while pointing a finger toward unruly children or violent adults, declaring them spoiled, entitled, or victims of circumstance. It’s easier, perhaps, to place blame on another person’s failure. Her parents weren’t strict enough. He grew up hard and no one taught him any better. Yet when the nation watches a highly publicized trial through the eyes of the media, we are outraged when a violent criminal receives a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict.
It’s an uncomfortable topic because the term “crazy” is tossed around flippantly, while the truth of mental illness is largely whispered about in somber tones, despite its prevalence and its growing public exposure.
Many know of business mogul Ted Turner. He founded CNN and built the Turner Broadcasting Company into a multi-billion dollar empire. He also has bi-polar disorder. Dick Clark; Mike Wallace, of “60 Minutes;” comedian Joan Rivers; humorist-columnist Art Buchwald; talk show host Dick Cavett; actress Patty Duke Astin; actor Robin Williams, and Beethoven—all names you will recognize. All struggled (or are still struggling) with some form of mental illness.
“One-in-four” means an inevitable connection close to home. For one local family, the statistic became startlingly real and sparked a desire to help others recognize the impact of the statement above and champion their loved ones moving forward.
Twenty-two-year-old Christina Menke graduated college Magna Cum Laude with a business degree. Beautiful, physically fit and motivated, Christina volunteered in the community and enjoyed an active, social lifestyle in the Florida town in which she resided. A series of mild panic attacks caused her to seek medical attention but, as instances became more frequent and violent, seizure-like episodes began to occur, whereby Christina would hyperventilate and hallucinate. Often, her body would contort painfully. Understandably startled, Christina would call her mother on the phone and plead for her help. From a state away, Lake Oconee resident Julie Menke could only try to talk her beloved daughter through the attack. Afterward, Christina wouldn’t remember a thing, often placing a bright, cheerful call to Julie with no idea anything had happened earlier.
Along with Christina’s escalating symptoms, social and employment situations became impossible to manage, and this bright young woman was forced to move home to Georgia to seek help from her parents. Attacks seized Christina’s mind and body several times a day, and the Menke family became very familiar with 911. It was during a trip to Putnam General Hospital emergency room where a doctor recognized Christina’s symptoms as being a “classically psychotic attack.” Finally, the Menke family had a direction in which to begin to explore a solution. Advantage Behavioral Health in Greensboro shed more light on Christina’s condition and gave it a name: Schizoaffective disorder.
The double-edge sword that is mental illness encompasses, on one hand, the option to combat one’s opponent with medication once it’s been identified, with the other side of the sword being an inability to accept the diagnosis in order to be treated. “She was in denial,” explains Julie Menke, of her daughter Christina. “It is characteristic of paranoid schizophrenics to believe the problem lies with others. They don’t want to accept that they need help. She needed to come to terms with her reality, but she wanted to be ‘normal.’ No one wants to be mentally ill.’’
It took two years for Christina to get past the denial of her diagnosis and accept treatment. Once medicated, the seizure-like psychosis ended immediately. Today, Christina is independent and responsible with her treatment, acknowledging that the quality of her life depends on her medication.
“Mental illness is a disease and, just like with alcoholism, it needs to be managed for the rest of one’s life,” explains Julie. As their daughter’s advocate, Julie and her husband George educated themselves about Christina’s condition and have become involved in the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), not just for self-education, but to bring awareness to the community. In doing so, the Menke family has gained the credentials necessary to bring a local NAMI meeting to the Lake Oconee area. At the time of this interview, their first meeting was on the horizon. “We thought we’d be lucky if we got just a few people this first night,” George says. “But many more than we hoped for have already signed up.”
George and Julie explain their goal to erase the stigma carried by the term “mental illness.” Julie sadly confirms that the vast majority of individuals who need help don’t seek help because of the very real fear of being ostracized by their communities. As such, the Menkes are encouraged by the response they have gotten from the community thus far. “Every time we can reach a few more people with a message of hope, we impact our community in a positive way,” Julie says.
“I am grateful each and every day for the parents I have,” says Christina. “I owe my life to them.” To others in her situation, Christina also has a message. “You are not alone,” she says. “If you don’t have someone to confide in, don’t be afraid. Reach out through the internet to NAMI. Someone there will help you.”
What: Local NAMI meetings
When: 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month, 6:30-8 p.m.
Where: Lakeside Church at Lake Oconee
5800 Lake Oconee Pkwy, Greensboro, Ga 30642
Contact: Julie or George Menke (706) 454-3453; Faye Taylor (706) 485-3453
The 2015 NAMIWalks Georgia event is coming to Grant Park in Atlanta on Sept. 26. This 5K fundraising event seeks to raise awareness of mental health, change how Americans view persons with mental illnessc, and improve lives and communities one step at a time. For more information on how you can support or participate in this event, visit www.namiwalks.org/georgia