Health & Wellness

Freeholder Pleads for Understanding and Compassion Towards Mental Illness

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Hunterdon County Freeholder Rob Walton Credits: Curtis Leeds / Tapinto Flemington-Raritan file photo
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Credits: courtesy American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
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FLEMINGTON, NJ – He made it through without crying.

For Freeholder Rob Walton, reading an emotional obituary penned by a father who lost his daughter to her suicide struck close to home. And because this is National Suicide Prevention Week, Walton seized on yesterday’s regular freeholder meeting to spread a message, just as Kathleen Marie Shoener’s dad used her obituary to explain her death and disease.

Walton did it by reading into the record the obituary that was first published in the Scranton Times-Tribune and which was the subject of an article in the Washington Post –  after first cautioning the public that he hadn’t previously been able to read it without tears.

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“Kathleen ‘Katie’ Marie Shoener, 29, fought bipolar disorder since 2005, but she finally lost the battle on Wednesday to suicide in Lewis Center, Ohio,” her father wrote.

“So often people who have a mental illness are known as their illness,” Shoener’s obituary states. “People say that ‘she is bipolar’ or ‘he is schizophrenic.’ Over the coming days as you talk to people about this, please do not use that phrase. People who have cancer are not cancer, those with diabetes are not diabetes. Katie was not bipolar -- she had an illness called bipolar disorder -- Katie herself was a beautiful child of God.”

Walton’s interest and caring about mental illness is not academic. His father, George Walton, was a noted attorney. After graduating from Rutgers Law school, he worked as a law clerk and later worked for state Sen. Wesley Lance. He took over a Frenchtown law practice, moved it to Milford, served as president of the Hunterdon County Bar Association and performed 30 years of pro bono work for the Hunterdon County Board of Appeals.

But his father suffered from clinical depression for years, the freeholder says. When  George’s wife died in 1985 at the age of 38, “Dad fell into a severe depressive state and was often unable to get out of bed or function. Eventually he got help from a psychiatrist and medication,” Rob said, but many around him – including Rob himself – didn’t fully understand the disease.

When advocating for improved understanding of mental illness, Walton often notes the disparity in treatment for his mom, who suffered from cancer, and his dad’s illness. Each are equally debilitating, Walton says, but “society still does not understand or have much compassion for people with mental health illnesses.”

Walton’s dad would die of natural causes. But his struggles led the freeholder to observe that  mental illness is the target of “terrible bigotry and prejudice.”

There are some indications that the attitudes towards mental health are slowly changing. At yesterday’s meeting, freeholders accepted a $150,000 Mental Health Diversion Program grant that will be managed by county Prosecutor Anthony P. Kearns, III.

Hunterdon is one of three counties that were awarded the grant, Kearns wrote in a press release. The program will provide alternatives to jail “for some defendants diagnosed with mental health disabilities,” it states.

The two-year program will offer treatment and counseling to participants “as an alternative to a potential prison sentence,” Kearns said. The goal is to “treat and redeem non-violent offenders who are suffering from a mental health disability, instead of warehousing them in prison.”

Help for all is always available. There’s the National Suicide Hotline, 800-273-TALK (8255). New Jersey offers its own 24/7 peer support and suicide prevention hotline at 1-855-654-6735. Hunterdon Helpline, also 24-7, is 1-800-272-4630. For 45 years, it has helped individuals and families navigate the services available and find solutions to life’s challenges.

Support is also available for both individuals and families from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. For more information, visit the Hunterdon chapter’s website or call them at 908- 284-0500. 

Shoener’s obituary states that even though she had the best of medical care, it wasn’t enough to save her life. “Someday a cure will be found,” it says, “but until then, we need to support and be compassionate to those with mental illness, every bit as much as we support those who suffer from ... any other illness.”

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