Speakers discuss mental health from three angles

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Jason Marti, a state-certified peer specialist and a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, remembers when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder at age 17.

“I had just gone to Manhattan to audition for school for theater,” Marti said. “Within a day or two, my pretty average life went from my dreams becoming reality to my mind beginning to break down. When I was diagnosed, it was like a death sentence.”

Marti spoke at the “Conversations on Mental Health” talk Tuesday in Cudahy Hall, along with David Baker, a professor and associate chair of the department of biomedical sciences, and Matt Kuntz, executive director of NAMI for Montana and the author of two books.

Together, the three speakers approached mental illness and mental health from different perspectives — experience, science and advocacy.

As an individual living with a mental illness, Marti said that despite the trials, he looks at his situation as a blessing, as it has opened his eyes to the world.

“I’m living proof that a person can have a severe mental illness and get back to the business of living,” Marti said. “It is possible.”

Baker, who specializes in the study of the brain, focused his talk on why medicines that treat mental illnesses are still relatively unreliable.

“Almost half of us in this room, at one time in our lives, will qualify for a diagnosis in mental illness,” Baker said.

Yet most medications that target mental illnesses only treat some symptoms, and progress has been lacking in the development of new treatments.

Baker said that despite the fact that there have been millions of studies on mental illnesses, not a single mental health illness has been cured. This is largely because most drugs that treat mental illnesses have been “serendipitously discovered.”

More than $27 billion has been spent on antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs, more than any other disease category.

Kuntz, a West Point graduate, used his theory of asymmetrical warfare to address what he called “causes in need of solving.”

Asymmetrical warfare is a list of steps to overcome problems and advocate for causes. In essence, it is a “never give up” approach that can be successful only with persistence and the help of the public, Kuntz said.

Kuntz lost his stepbrother, a member of the Montana National Guard, to suicide after he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Since then, Kuntz has advocated for greater mental health care for service members, specifically those returning from tours of duty.

He successfully lobbied the Montana state legislature to enact a law that mandated mental health screenings of all Montana National Guardsmen coming back from tours of duty. In doing so, he hopes to raise awareness to diagnose PTSD early and prevent suicide.

Kuntz reiterated that determination and persistence could work for problems and causes outside those of mental health.

“If you care about something,” Kuntz said, “it’s on you.”

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