Remove the stigma attached to mental illness
February 16, 2015

Chicago Tribune, February 16, 2015

I read with great concern the Tribune’s recent coverage (“Tempers flare over Lake Zurich homeless plan,” News, Jan. 22) regarding the debate in Lake Zurich over the plan to house 14 individuals with mental health challenges in a home on Midlothian Road. The conversation seems to have flared up over safety concerns and unfounded fear and some area residents are taking strong steps to halt the approved use of the property for this purpose.

As a business owner and engaged citizen, I too strongly believe that all of us deserve and have the right to a safe, stable place to live, work and play. Since studies clearly show that persons with mental illness are in fact more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, it would seem the interests of the current neighbors and the new neighbors are aligned.

As a father of an adult son who suffered from schizophrenia and addiction disorders, I struggled to provide P.J. a stable and supportive living environment where he could thrive. Blessed with resources, I was able to pay for a roof over his head, but I could not end the stigma he battled inside it — stigma, I believe, that killed him when he was just 32 years old. Before P.J. died, he said to me, “Dad, I’d rather die an alcoholic than a mental patient.”

My family’s pain grew into an acute awareness that we are not alone and sadly we are not unique. Alongside Patrick Kennedy, I founded The Kennedy Forum Illinois initiative to promote more awareness, conversation and action.

This fear that persons with mental disorders are more dangerous than the general population is not only false, it is also dangerous. The conversation that is taking place in Lake Zurich is important not just for the formerly homeless seeking a safe and supportive home, but for all of us. One in four families today currently struggle with mental health challenges and half of us will experience mental health issues in our lifetimes. Persons and families experiencing mental health must be able to reach out for health care assistance without the fear and shame of the stigma and the ignorance it supports. Each and every one of us deserves the dignity of a safe walk around our neighborhood, and the kindness and respect of a simple hello from our neighbors. What we don’t deserve is to be restricted by fear and guided by misinformation.

— Peter O’Brien, co-founder of the Kennedy Forum Illinois, Chicago