We all had the proverbial "crazy lady" in our neighborhoods growing up. She may have been reclusive or perhaps had a disheveled appearance and dressed funny. Maybe her accent was strange and her words hard to understand. I grew up with the one who constantly peeked through her curtains and ran out screaming if we as much stepped one foot onto her property.

Mental illness is as serious as a heart attack and as devastating to an entire family as terminal cancer. Strange behaviors exhibited by a person of any age are often misunderstood and ignored out of fear and ignorance. When a person has a visible injury that produces heavy bleeding, an onlooker can see something is wrong and knows to call for help. When a person walks by, talking out loud to himself and making strange facial expressions, we tend to look away and quicken our pace. We do not have the means to help a person in mental distress.

My psychiatric rotation in nursing school was my favorite. Ask any health care professional if they like psychiatry, and nine times out of 10 they will roll their eyes and say, "I can't stand psych!" Why is that? Well, because many in the medical field see mental illness as something they are unable to understand and feel at a loss when it comes to caring for such illnesses.

I Googled toxicology reports on the recent mass murderers and was sad to read that psychotropic medications were found in most of their systems - Xanax, Zoloft and Geodon to name a few. As we all know, any drug that's abused and not monitored by a physician can have ill effects.

I worked for five years with a terrific psychiatrist in a correctional setting. This doctor was a wonderful teacher. He taught me that chronic hepatitis C causes severe depression in patients as well as undiagnosed hypothyroidism; that signs of schizophrenia in a 50-year-old with no past history of any mental health problems may be indicative of a brain tumor; that a dangerously low blood sugar level can cause extreme physical violence.

Also, I personally heard the sociopathic personalities tell life stories that always included a lack of any reasonable ability to deal with normal life stressors. These are the folks who are not helped by most prescribed medications and abuse drugs, which produces devastating behavioral outcomes.

For suicidal patients, I would always say that no matter what they accomplished up to the point where they take their own lives, their legacies would always be simply that they killed themselves. These mass murderers leave unprecedented legacies on purpose as they kill themselves.

I was working in an inpatient, locked psychiatric unit a few years ago when a middle-age woman was found wandering the streets and was lucky enough to be brought to the ER. Many are brought to jails these days due to the shortage of appropriate care facilities. A pleasant soul, she paced the hall for hours nonstop. She would politely refuse medications, resume pacing and stop to talk with the people only she could see. I was her nurse and asked if we could sit together for 15 minutes at a specific place and time to take a break together. We sat quietly, and when the 15 minutes had gone by, she stood up, said thank you and began pacing again.

After agreeing to take prescribed medications, she improved dramatically. On the day of her discharge, she wanted me to meet her brother who was her ride home. He shook my hand, smiled and said, "So, you're Nurse Joan! She talks about you all the time." I hugged my patient and told her to always stay on her meds.

Treating the mentally ill person is not as barbaric as it was in fairly recent years. Medications have improved and helped countless people.

Yet, at an early age, it is reasonable and necessary to teach coping skills and appropriate ways of dealing with difficult and painful events. The recluse, the disheveled, the bullied, or anyone who is at his breaking point, may lean on these coping skills rather than resort to the violence we are witnessing all too often in our society today.

Joan Mahon, 58, has been a registered nurse for 37 years, specializing in psychiatric care and operating-room nursing. She lives in Villas.

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