Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=105289
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COHEN1

Photo by Kelli Langdon, 2008

Lawrence Cohen announces his foundation's partnership with the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. The two organizations hope to join forces to combat the stigma of mental illness.


Mental health partnership seeks to tear down misunderstanding

by Alison Flowers
Nov 13, 2008


COHEN2

Courtesy of Naomi Ruth Cohen Institute for Mental Health Education

Naomi Ruth Cohen, a geriatrics counselor, artist and animal lover (two cats and two dogs), was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 30. Two years later she took her own life.

Related Links

Visit the foundation's Web siteTo learn about bipolar disorder in children, read 'Mother chases hope for her family and others'

Understanding bipolar disorder

Formerly known as manic depression, the disorder renders the brain unable to consistently regulate moods. As the name suggests, the illness causes the two poles of moods - mania and depression - to go into overdrive.

Bipolar disorder is shared by 5.7 million adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. 

This long-term illness generally develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. While some may start showing symptoms as children, others may become symptomatic later in life. A proper diagnosis often doesn't arrive until years after these symptoms emerged. 

An added difficulty of living with bipolar disorder is that many people, as well as some doctors, still do not understand it to be an illness.  


People may think that those with mental illness choose to build walls and separate themselves from the outside world. But for the families and friends who live within that painful cloister, the walls appear to be society’s own craftsmanship.

 

One Evanston couple’s home-based foundation has been steadfastly whittling away at these walls for six years, only to get a recent boost from the organization that helped them from the start.

Lawrence and Marilyn Cohen and Dr. Michael Horowitz, president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, announced Tuesday that their organizations will now share a roof. The newly created Naomi Ruth Cohen Institute for Mental Health Education will have an even larger framework under which to pursue its unfettered mission of overcoming stigma.

“They are very determined and extremely brave,” said Horowitz. “I don’t know who goes through a tragedy like that and so quickly responds in the way that’s about helping others in the community.”

Just two years after their 32-year-old daughter Naomi took her own life, the Cohens established the formerly named Naomi Ruth Cohen Charitable Foundation in 2002. At the age of 30, Naomi was diagnosed with a particularly intense form of bipolar disorder.

Naomi always wanted to lead a “normal” life. She graduated from high school in Evanston and earned an undergraduate degree in design from Syracuse University. Combining her love of art with the social responsibility she felt for seniors, Naomi interned at a center where she helped the elderly tap into their creativity by producing an exhibit. With a master’s degree in counseling, she later became a geriatrics counselor, work she loved and pursued until her illness rendered her unable to continue.

“People didn’t understand it,” Lawrence Cohen said. “They were afraid to talk about it.”

So after her death, the Cohens decided to break the silence themselves.

“What we wanted to do was something in memory of our daughter and also as a means of helping us get through the grieving process, to do something good in light of her life,” Cohen said.

That “something” has grown to include its unique Community Mental Health Conference where more than 300 professionals, consumers and family members address mental health issues and ready up resources for those who need them.

“I’ve been to many, many conferences, and normally the public doesn’t mix that way,” Horowitz said.

The best part, he added, is seeing people attend the conference who were previously unwilling to ask for help.

“We get people who say ‘I didn’t understand what my daughter or spouse was going through. Now I know more,’” said Cohen.

But beyond the annual conference, the organization seeks to find underserved communities, a vision it shares with the Chicago School and the reason why they partnered, according to Cohen.

When the Latino community couldn’t participate in the conferences because of the language barrier, the Cohens created another conference in Spanish. When they realized the African-American community wasn’t getting mental health essentials, they took that need seriously and sponsored seminars.

Teens are another misunderstood community that the Cohens are determined to reach. The organization underwrites an essay contest, creating the opportunity for adolescents to unearth their buried feelings and share them with adults.

And the growing number of returning vets hasn’t escaped their attention, either. The institute hopes to serve that community, with the help of its Chicago School partner.

But perhaps the hallmark of the Cohens’ work is the way they galvanize communities, including religious ones of all kinds, to sponsor their work.

“We believe there is a spiritual, as well as a secular, component,” Cohen said.

Horowitz added that the environment of their events, often in a synagogue or church, helps people to talk about their needs: “The model is really a great one.”

Now this model organization can enjoy a long life at the Chicago School as its continuance is no longer fully dependent on the Cohens alone.

“By accessing the Chicago School, we can grow,” Cohen said. “We have the resources of the school.”

The school is mutually grateful for inheriting the foundation’s many resources. “We’re very excited to carry it forward,” Horowitz said.

Moving forward in awareness is what Naomi would have wanted, Cohen believes. She would have wanted to help others not endure the devastation that she felt.

“The community is realizing that [mental illness] is a problem that doesn’t discriminate by race, sex, religion or anything else,” Cohen said.

With renewed strength, the partnership hopes to be the emblem of something greater, of a community that will force down its constructions of misunderstanding.