Kelly Strom | Books on a timely topic: Mental illnes

Kelly Strom | Books on a timely topic: Mental illnes

How many incidents like the recent school shooting in Parkland, Fla., have to happen before we get a grip on mental illness? Once again, the accused perpetrator had a history of instability. Come on, people! Mental dysfunction is a disease! It shouldn't have a stigma, and people shouldn't be afraid to get help. And our society needs more facilitators — people who are professionals and paid like the important workers that they are.

According to Forbes magazine, "The average NBA salary is projected to hit $10 million for the 2020-21 season." And a study from the U.S. News & World Report stated that "Social workers who specialize in children and family welfare made a median salary of $43,250 in 2016." Can we just think about that for a while?

And as you do your thinking, check out these new non-fiction books from the library, all dealing in some fashion with the trials and consequences of the mentally unstable. All of these are available at our library in print, audiobook and downloadable e-book formats.

"The Only Girl in the World" by Maude Julien is a remarkable memoir from a woman who was raised under her father's fanatical guidelines. Believing that their daughter was conceived to become a superhuman, they did everything they thought was possible to ensure her mental acuity and physical strength.

They moved to an isolated estate in France with a tall wall all around it. Within these barriers, they subjected her to harsh conditions and daily tests. She slept in a spartan room without heat or air conditioning, ready at any moment to be awakened for nighttime drills. She was taught several languages and given classic literature by Nietzsche, Aristotle, Camus and Dostoyevsky, which she read by age 11. She was told to hold on to an electric fence for minutes without flinching and had to sit in a cellar inhabited by rats all night so that she could contemplate death. She was forced to empty her father's bed pan each day and was told that people were constantly looking to kidnap her. She lived in terror every day.

The mental and physical punishment from her obviously unstable father is mind-boggling. The fact that this girl not only made it out alive, but went on to become a psychotherapist is a true testament to her inner strength. You won't soon forget this woman's story.

In "American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life In a Vanishing Land" by Monica Hesse is a completely different type of story. The author is a feature writer for the Washington Post and knows how to compose a tale of suspense, strong characterizations and a rumination on the dying of rural America. Reporting on the serial arsons in Accomack County, Va., the reader is transported to the winter of 2012-2013 when the fires began. Arson and pyromania are listed in the DSM-5 as psychological disorders.

By the time of an arrest, five months after it began, there had been dozens of fires in the county. Each time, the arsonist left zero clues. No accelerant was used, there were no witnesses, no DNA, nothing. Almost all of the fires occurred at abandoned houses that were isolated along country roads. There were many fire departments involved, several police detectives and eventually vigilante groups, state troopers and profilers. They started putting hidden cameras in the trees by homes that they thought may be targets. Nothing seemed to be working.

By the time Charlie Smith was captured, the tale he told seemed unbelievable to some. Why would someone, a townie, want to light so many fires? Did he have help? Wrapped up in this story of desperation and mental insecurity is a lesson on the downfall of rural America.

Accomack County was once the richest rural county in America. Home to the Whispering Pines Resort, which was visited by movie stars and important government officials, it was the hotbed of affluence on the shores of the Atlantic.

As time went on, recessions hit, manufacturing changed and the county became a sort of downtrodden ghost town. This was why there were so many vacated properties. People just left, trying to find a better life somewhere else. This is a multi-faceted look at crime, society and mental illness.

Lastly, "No One Cares about Crazy People: the Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America" by best-selling author Ron Powers, is a call for justice and attention to the world of the mentally ill. Focused primarily on the increase in cases of schizophrenia in our country, the book details the experiences of the author and his two sons.

A blend of the history of treating the mentally ill, with a deeply emotional telling of his sons' battles with the disease, the book is both disturbing and engaging.

Without giving anything away, Powers had two sons diagnosed with schizophrenia. Both were charming and productive young men until their brain was somehow altered. No one really knows exactly how some psychotic issues develop, and there isn't a cure. Throughout history, doctors have relied on treatments such as lobotomies, shock treatments and eugenics.

The author's sons were somewhat lucky, because they did have the means to get help. One has made it thus far, and one has not. There are countless people out there who do not receive assistance in dealing with psychosis.

Powers pleas with society to become more involved — demand more grant money be spent on research, train more empathetic and knowledgeable caregivers. Offer training to the police and other emergency personnel who are confronted with the mentally ill every day. Insist that more be done. There has to be some way we as a society can improve the understanding of mental health. And we need to before some tragedy hits another town.

Kelly Strom is the collection manager at the Champaign Public Library. She orders books, ebooks, magazines, newspapers, audiobooks and CDs.

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