By Wendy Sarubbi | June 27, 2016 3:42 pm

For many people, battling a mental illness has meant a lifetime suffering in silence. But an increased public understanding of the physiological nature of mental illnesses is helping to reduce the stigma, a College of Medicine faculty member told film devotees June 25.

“Advances in neuroscience research and a greater awareness and understanding of mental illness are helping to remove some of the stereotypes. It is becoming less viewed as a personal failing and more seen as a physical illness,” said Dr. Martin Klapheke, assistant dean of medical education and professor of psychiatry.  “It’s a snowball effect, because the more people are comfortable talking about it, the better impact it has on their quality of life, and the more likely they are to seek help.”

Dr. Klapheke was speaking at a showing of “Rocks in my Pockets,” an animated movie that tells the story of a family’s intergenerational challenges with mental illness. Based on true events, it chronicles the struggles of five women, including the director and producer, Signe Baumane, and their battles with depression and suicide. The film raises questions of how much family genetics determine who we are and their role in mental illness.

“Rocks in my Pockets” is part of a series of films being presented by Enzian Theater aimed at bridging the gap between science and art. Each film is accompanied by a presentation from an expert from the world of science, technology, mathematics and medicine, who helps to connect the dots for the audience from an evidence-based perspective.

In his presentation, “Nature, Nurture, and Connections to our Past and Future,” Dr. Klapheke discussed the role of genetics and life experiences in mental illness, and addressed myths and stigma about mental health.

“One myth is that patients will never get better,” Dr. Klapheke said. “We are starting to see that the impact of psychiatric treatments is comparable to the impact of treatments for diabetes, hypertension and other diseases. You won’t necessarily cure all of it, just like you can’t cure diabetes necessarily, but you can treat it to improve quality of life and prevent longer-term effects.”

Research suggests that 40 percent of mental illness has a hereditary component and if one parent has a mood disorder, the child is at a 10 to 25 percent higher risk of the condition. Dr. Klapheke also highlighted intergenerational stress, where emotional pain and suffering can be passed down as a behavior from one generation to the next. In the movie, one older member of the family tried to commit suicide by standing in a river but she didn’t have rocks in her pockets to sink her. The rocks were symbolic of the mental illness the woman’s granddaughter felt doomed by genetics to experience.

However, being genetically vulnerable for a condition does not mean a person is destined to have the illness, Dr. Klapheke explained.

“It’s not just genes or relationships, but other aspects of your environment or epigenetics – life experiences, alcohol, nicotine – can impact your genetic code and that can end up impacting behavior and everything else. Positive life experiences, such as maternal warmth and supportive relationships also have the potential, via various mechanisms, to mitigate some intergenerational results of stress” Dr. Klapheke said.

Baumane, the film’s director, is a Latvian author and award-winning animator who was diagnosed as manic-depressive. The film chronicles the story of her grandmother and four granddaughters – Baumane and three cousins – who all battled depression and suicide.  Baumane was also present at the showing, and fielded questions from an engaged audience after the viewing.

“This is a space where arts and sciences meet,” Baumane said in sharing her thoughts about Dr. Klapheke’s presentation. “He was talking about the same things I experienced and my thoughts on certain things, but in a more objective, scientific way. It’s the same message as my movie, but ‘Rocks in my Pockets’ is my personal story, so there is no objectivity. So it’s interesting to hear that he presented the same message in an objective way.”

“The intergenerational stress he spoke of, in particular, resonated with me,” she continued, “especially with the war and the overwhelming pressures of motherhood my family went through, and all these elements gets carried on to other generations.”

Dr. Klapheke said he hoped the film brought attention to mental health.

“I think it’s a great film in that it lends itself so well to multiple fascinating issues including stigma, mental health and mental illness and what causes it,” he said. “But the ending of the film is an expression of hope that we are not destined by our genes, we can take charge of our life and we have the capacity to heal.”


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