Taking steps for mental health: Hundreds participate in fund-raiser

Stephen Hildman's one-mile stroll in yesterday's Move for Mental Health race certainly ranks as a modest athletic feat for an able-bodied 55-year-old male. But for someone who struggles to rouse himself just to brush his teeth in the morning, merely making it to the 9:30 a.m. event on time was an accomplishment.

It helped that Hildman was walking for a cause that for him couldn't be closer — raising money and awareness for people with mental illnesses. Hildman suffers from two: severe depression and anxiety disorder.

Hildman was among 600 people who ran, walked or volunteered at the event at Sand Point Magnuson Park. Many were caseworkers, nurses and others who work with the mentally ill. Others were the ill themselves, a few of whom wore overwhelmed expressions that somehow distinguished them from regular weekend athletes.

According to a 2001 report by the American Mental Health Association, mental illness in the United States costs the government, businesses and individuals $205 billion a year. But only $92 billion of that is spent on treatment. Much of the rest is lost to the costs of absenteeism, unemployment and welfare resulting from mistreating or not treating mental disorders.

Hildman overcame temporary panic caused by oversleeping and confusion at the start of the race that sent some one-mile walkers on a route meant for 5K runners. Those were minor challenges compared to living with depression and anxiety.

First diagnosed in 1981, Hildman now takes the anti-depressant Effexor and Zyprexa, used primarily to treat psychosis.

Even with medications and therapy, Hildman is almost never free of symptoms of his illnesses. He has difficulty making decisions, and he vacillates on matters big and small. Paying bills, finishing a book or going on a hike all require great effort. Sometimes, he wakes up to a body that feels like it weighs a thousand pounds. He has learned to rarely schedule anything in the morning.

"There are (more) things that I'd like to have done with my life," said Hildman, a voluble, friendly man. "Depression is a big hurdle."

Don Clayton, a caseworker with Seattle's Downtown Emergency Services Center, ran the 5K race in honor of his clients, who are homeless and, in many cases, mentally ill.

Clayton helps many people suffering from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Many of the former like the feeling they get during their manic, or high, states and won't take their medication. Many of the latter, who are often psychotic or delusional, don't realize they're sick.

Clayton said even those who suffer from several mental disorders can learn to live with them, much the same way that people learn to cope with an addiction.

He said that, misconceptions aside, the mentally ill are not more violent than others.

"I feel less safe walking down Third Avenue than I do in our offices," Clayton said.

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or ksong@seattletimes.com