With rising suicides among kids, is mental illness ever a joking matter? Even in politics?

Did comments about mental illness by a Brian Kemp campaign spokesman cross a line? An educator with a daughter who grappled with debilitating mental illness says they did.
Did comments about mental illness by a Brian Kemp campaign spokesman cross a line? An educator with a daughter who grappled with debilitating mental illness says they did.

I appreciate educator Monica Henson's candor, which readers saw a few weeks ago with her essay on the state decision to close the charter school for at-risk teens that she led. Henson's candor is on display in full force today in a rebuttal to a comment by the Brian Kemp campaign ridiculing a Republican senator who has been open about past mental health struggles.

As the AJC Political Insider reported:

We've reached a point of no return in the GOP race for governor: Dueling calls for federal prosecution, intense scraps between surrogates and biting language from the candidates. And now, a claim from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle that Secretary of State Brian Kemp lobbed a "sexist attack" against one of his supporters.

He's referring to Kemp spokesman Ryan Mahoney's response to state Sen. Renee Unterman, who called on federal prosecutors to investigate whether he failed to take action against the owner of a massage parlor who backed his campaign.

Mahoney called Unterman "mentally unstable" and said she hoped he would seek "immediate medical attention before she hurts herself or someone else." Cagle slammed Kemp on Twitter for the critique of a "strong Republican women supporting my campaign."

I decided to run Henson's piece because the issue of mental illness and the labels around it concern me, especially in light of how many kids are grappling with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Untreated mental illness is a major challenge in our classrooms, and suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds.

Henson has been open about her own child’s battles, as has Unterman, who lost a son to mental illness in 2009.

Henson is clear – and I want to be even clearer – that she supports Casey Cagle for governor. I also have to note she's not alone in raising concerns about the mental illness dig by the Kemp camp.

By Monica Henson

Readers of this blog who have seen my previous pieces know me as an educator. Those who follow me on Twitter know me as a passionate advocate of educational opportunities for the students least able to seek resources for themselves.

Today, I am writing as the mother of a young adult who has been through the hell of serious mental illness and come out on the other side. I am writing as an educator who has served many students who have been in the mental health system. I am writing as a human being with basic, common decency.

Sadly, decency is sorely lacking in the bare-knuckle brawl that is the American political arena, including our own state.

Students with mental health issues, estimated to be as many as 20 percent of the population (and I believe that to be a conservative estimate), are often the targets of bullying. I am writing to express my outrage at an adult who has demonstrated a textbook example of the kind of bullying that has driven young people, tragically, to take their own lives.

Educator Monica Henson
Educator Monica Henson

This week, the Brian Kemp for Governor Campaign, through its spokesman, made a comment questioning the mental stability of Republican Sen. Renee Unterman, saying that she “needs to take her meds before she hurts someone.” I have yet to see an apology or retraction by the campaign of this statement.

It is worth noting the comment came on the birthday of Sen. Unterman late son, Zak, who tragically committed suicide at age 25 after a struggle with mental illness. Sen. Unterman wrote a poignant Facebook post about the Kemp campaign slur.

It is well-known and has been for years that Sen. Unterman sought treatment for depression after her divorce. Rather than being bullied and ridiculed for seeking treatment for a mental health issue that millions of people struggle with daily, she should be commended for her transparency and willingness to share her struggle to help others in similar circumstances.

I am the mother of an adult daughter who struggled for years with serious, debilitating mental illness. Thankfully, she has benefited from expert psychiatric treatment and medications that enable her to master the condition, and she is now a scholarship college student studying social work and criminal justice, planning to work with troubled youth.

She doesn't hesitate to share her story or allow me to share it. She is proud of how far she has come, and so am I. She is a young woman who has to “take her meds” in order to manage a devastating illness that led her to substance abuse, cutting her arms that still bear scars, and overdoses in an effort to self-medicate a condition that took years to get accurately diagnosed. Thank God that she “takes her meds,” and thank God that they enable her to be a productive member of society who is going to do good and noble work.

Georgia Deputy State Superintendent Garry McGiboney has been a longtime champion of improving school climate, addressing bullying, and providing support for children with mental health issues, speaking to state, regional, and national audiences about these issues. Our two foremost educational leaders, along with the General Assembly, have listened and acted on his recommendations. Gov. Nathan Deal released last year the report of the Commission on Children's Mental Health, a commission created via executive order to provide recommendations for improving state mental health services for children.

State Superintendent Richard Woods recently announced DOE is funding a million dollar initiative to aid schools in better managing conditions for students struggling with mental health problems.

I don’t want the mental health needs of the public, including our children, to be dismissed by anyone, least of all a state leader. Too many children face this sort of bullying and ridicule on the playground; they should not witness it in politics.

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