ELKHART — Unlike a brain tumor, mental illness won’t show up on an X-ray, and conditions don’t discriminate when choosing a host.
“The trouble with mental illness is that it still seems such like a hard science for people to wrap their minds around,” said Sheila Walsh, prolific author, vocalist and television personality.
Walsh, who is diagnosed with clinical depression, will be the featured guest Friday at Oaklawn’s 19th Annual Spring Spectacular, the organization’s largest recurring fundraiser. With campuses in Goshen, Elkhart, South Bend and Mishawaka, Oaklawn provides mental health and addictions treatment to about 30,000 children, adolescents and adults.
A former co-host of popular Christian talk show “The 700 Club,” the Scottish-born, Texas-based Walsh abruptly left the show in 1992 after four years and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital for treatment.
She could “feel (her) life crumbling,” she said.
“I remember one of the staff there saying, ‘Sheila, if people know where you’ve been no one will ever trust you again’ as if it’s a character issue and not a chemical issue,” Walsh recalled. “The fact that you can’t see it — someone might tell you they’re depressed or they’re struggling with different things, but people tend to tell people like that, ‘C’mon, pull yourself together,’ which is as ridiculous as telling a child that’s gone and broke their leg, ‘Well, just get up and walk.'”
Walsh referred to humans as complicated, composed of mind, body, spirit and soul. In her own journey, although she’s discovered direction and healing partially through her Christian faith, it was necessary to develop a support system beyond the church.
“I think one of the great things about having something like Oaklawn within the community is it’s a place where people can go and say, ‘Hey, listen, I think I need help.’ For me, it wasn’t enough to say, OK, I’ve got this diagnosis of severe clinical depression, so I’ll read my Bible and pray; that’s certainly a huge component. But I also take my medication. I also went for good counseling. I also have a small group of people who are my safe people who, when I’m not doing well, I can call them up, and we can talk together or pray together,” she said. “We’re not designed to do this journey by ourselves. The trouble with mental illness is it’s very isolating. I think our first response is we want to pull away from people. But we need two or three trustworthy people in our lives.”
Walsh discussed her use of medication, specifically Cymbalta, an antidepressant, and offered encouragement to anyone who may be considering similar treatment options.
“First of all, the first thing I’d say is ‘Well done.’ It takes courage to embrace something that’s not always embraced by our entire community,” she said. “… I remember the very first prescription I had to fill. I remember standing in line hoping that no one would recognize me, and thinking, well, if they recognize me will I just say that I have the flu? And I think that is really ridiculous. In our community, we are all broken in some way. Some people take medication for heart disease, for cholesterol; that’s to fix an imbalance within their system. And to take medication for depression or for bipolar or for any of the mental illnesses, it’s not a happy pill. … This is simply correcting an imbalance in the brain.”
Ahead her Friday address, Walsh said its her intention to “pull back the curtain” on mental illness in hope of fostering “a more supportive and understanding community.”
“I’m going to talk very honestly, very transparently about my own journey which led me to the point of really considering taking my own life,” Walsh said. “My father committed suicide when I was 5. And when that’s been placed on the family table, what no one would think about in a normal family becomes part of the tapestry of your family.”
The effects of mental illness aren’t solely confined to hosts. Family, friends co-workers — those in the affected person’s orbit — are crucial pillars of the recovery process, and offering support may be simpler than some may think, Walsh said.
“I think one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another is simply the gift of our presence,” she said. “Sometimes we shy away from people who are struggling because we think, ‘What if I say the wrong thing?’ When somebody is in pain, when somebody is struggling, there’s no right thing to say. They’re not looking for words that will heal them.
“There’s something powerful about simply being with someone. So don’t be afraid to sit with someone and have nothing to say other than, ‘I’m here for you. I love you. I support you in your good days and your bad days.'”
Geoff Lesar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 307.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: 19th Annual Oaklawn Spring Spectacular
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
WHERE: The Lerner Theatre, 410 S. Main St.
To purchase tickets, visit www.thelerner.com, call 574-293-4469, or stop by the Lerner box office.