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Congresswoman helps shake stigma of mental illness

Rivers receives the National Mental Health Association's Legislator of the Year Award  

In this story:

NEW YORK (CNN) -- When Rep. Lynn Rivers spoke about her manic depression, she became the only member of Congress to go public with a mental illness.

For her decision to speak out, the Democrat from Michigan was awarded the National Mental Health Association's Legislator of the Year Award on Wednesday. But perhaps more importantly, her public pronouncement has given strength to other people who suffer from mental illness.

Among those fellow sufferers are Sibyl Shalo and Bill Lichtenstein, both of whom lost friends, jobs, or other opportunities after they were honest about their illnesses.

Shunned, rejected


Shalo said she realized as a child that she was different.

"I felt like something wasn't right. I knew that I had less energy than other kids. I was kind of less motivated," she said.

Eventually, she was diagnosed as suffering from depression and was once hospitalized after taking an overdose of pills.

"In college, I went on a couple of dates with a guy and he found out that ... I had been hospitalized two years previously and all of a sudden he was just not returning my calls," Shalo said.

For Bill Lichtenstein, who is manic depressive, the rejection was professional.

CNN's Gary Tuchman looks at advances people with mental illness have made
icon 2 min., 15 sec. VXtreme video

Now the president of his own production house, Lichtenstein applied for a producer's job at a television station years ago. The interviewer asked him why he had recently been in the hospital.

"I didn't know what to say, so I said, 'Well, I was exhausted and I went into the hospital for a couple of weeks, but I'm fine now, and I would really like this job,'" he said. "That was the end of the job offer."

Common illness


Experts say that more than 5 million Americans suffer from a severe episode of mental illness in any given year. While it is fairly common -- and treatable -- there continues to be a stigma attached to mental illness.

"Nobody wants to talk about mental illness," said Ken Dudek, a mental health advocate at Fountain House.

But honesty about mental illness -- like the openness displayed by Rep. Rivers -- is healthy as well as helpful, said Shalo, who works in the medical field.

"If they don't understand or they're not willing to learn about this illness, learn the biology and chemistry of it, and realize it's not my fault, it's not my personality, it's not something wrong with me in terms of my character, then that's not somebody I want to be with anyway," she said.

Correspondent Gary Tuchman contributed to this report.

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