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It's time to change the conversation about mental illness in our community. It's time to write about more than shootings involving the mentally ill (with the reflexive caveat that not all the mentally ill are violent). In this era of pink ribbons and fundraising walks, it's hard to remember that not too long ago we didn't talk about cancer, impotence and infertility. Now there are powerful political political action committees, adoption reality shows and omnipresent ads for erectile dysfunction products. It's time to normalize the discussion of mental illness as we have for other human conditions.

People with mental illness are not dangerous "others." One in four Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness and more than half of these have more than one disorder. "They" are really "us." And while many of us are fortunate to have only mild anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder, we continue to stigmatize those who are affected more seriously. We often view the severely mentally ill as somehow weak, self-indulgent or damaged rather than seeing ourselves as members of the Lucky Sperm Club who have escaped this condition in the genetic lottery.

As a society, we have largely chosen to focus our response to mental diseases on the legal system rather than medical or social systems. Our prisons and jails are the largest providers of mental care in our country. We have preferred to put the "out of mind" out of our sight. Do we really want to live in a community that marginalizes and isolates people struggling with an illness?

Geel is a city in Belgium with a long tradition of welcoming the mentally ill into the community. Since the Middle Ages, the town has been a refuge for sufferers who are welcomed into foster families where they often live for decades. Pedophiles and the violent are screened out of the program, and families are supported with small stipends and the help of psychiatric nurses and doctors. In Geel, the mentally ill are not homeless or beggars on the street but family members welcomed by by residents with a tradition of tolerance and acceptance. You can watch a "60 Minutes" segment about Geel at www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7380278n.

Sonoma County has three interesting self-help programs that are worthy of publicity:

Interlink (www.interlinkselfhelpcenter.org) in Santa Rosa has been providing a supportive and safe environment for the mentally ill for more than 15 years. The emphasis is on acceptance, building self-esteem, self-help and handling issues that arise with the illness.

The Wellness and Advocacy Center (www.wellnessandadvocacy.org) in Santa Rosa offers career skills and computer training as well as art, gardening, spirituality and Spanish groups.

The Petaluma Peer Recovery Project (769-5299) is a relatively new center that offers a blend of the Interlink and Wellness Center approaches.

If we normalize the treatment of mental illness and become more inclusive, we can gain access to the contributions people with mental illness have to offer.

Vincent Van Gogh's father considered sending him to Geel. While he lived in a supportive environment in the south of France, Van Gogh was able to complete a series of outstanding paintings.

What talents are we losing by allowing the mentally ill to languish without care and support? We should not waste the opportunity to become a more tolerant, accepting community.

Let's talk about it.

<i>Cynthia Tuttelman is a retired family physician in Petaluma.</i>

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