A man's bright outfit stands out against a bleak winter day as he jogs around Baxter Boulevard in Portland on Monday Jan. 4, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Joe Pickering Jr. of Bangor was the director of Community Health and Counseling Services for 30 years.

We’ve received hundreds of expressions of support over our son Chris’ recent passing. Many shared their own pandemic of pain. They live with a family member with a health condition with a devastating label. No, not heart disease or diabetes, which are inadequately labeled “physical illness,” but schizophrenia, bipolar, severe depression and others labeled “mental illness.” What’s the difference? Plenty!

Words that stigmatize, like mental illness, can kill. Words make up laws and policies that determine who gets treatment at the federal and state levels. Research funding for so-called physical illnesses like cancer is far greater than that for brain disorders and addiction. This is compounded by the perpetuation of myths surrounding these disorders.

One mother sadly described to me that her son’s illness could not be seen. He was not in a wheelchair and didn’t have a shaved head due to cancer. He had schizophrenia. Their closest and dearest friends turned their backs on them and their community did not fund raise or reach out or help in any way. Instead this family was treated with sideway glances, silence and isolation.

What is schizophrenia? Nicholas Wade of the New York Times put it this way: “Schizophrenia seems to be not a single disease but the endpoint of 10,000 different disruptions to the delicate architecture of the human brain.”

There is no other human organ as complex and vastly difficult to comprehend. Is the world at the early stages of brain research? Yes. After centuries lacking brain research, simplistic outdated stigma labels still continue to cause a pandemic of pain.

Mainers let’s live up to our motto and lead. Put our compassion in action. No one should have to suffer through illness plus society’s scorn. Maine has led the nation in ending the discriminatory use of Native American mascots in our schools. Maine in 1820 adopted a constitution permitting Black males to vote 43 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Let’s come together like never before. Use scientific truth to tear down the stigma wall. How? Demand that the new findings in science about brain disorders and addictions be studied and taught everywhere in Maine. Demand all the media stop flooding our minds with this poison pandemic of stigmatization.

One national organization the National Shattering Silence Coalition deserves true praise by supporting a right to treatment before tragedy strikes for all age groups living with serious brain disorders. Had Maine’s “of danger to one’s self and/or others” law been less rigid, my Chris might be alive today.

A bill has been introduced to the Maine Legislature by Rep. Barbara Cardone at my request to help correct this injustice and save future Chris’ and Christies. LR 532 is titled “An Act To Change the Standard for Assessing Risk of Serious Harm” and is cosponsored by several legislators.

There’s another excellent bill, LR 1404 sponsored by Sen. Ned Claxton from Auburn. In 2010, an outpatient commitment bill was enacted into law to help provide services to those with severe brain disorders. But, the law has not been used. If Maine were to fully implement it, the state would be eligible for up to $1 million in federal funds to reimburse the legal expenses of Assertive Treatment Teams. Other states are receiving these federal funds. Please support LR 1404 as well as LR 532.

Meanwhile, I hope members of our state government and Mainers in general will read or reread Lance Tapley’s article of September 2017: “After 27 years, Maine still fails to comply with the court-ordered decree to improve treatment of the state’s mentally ill.”

Has anything changed in three years for community services that serve this population? For example, are group homes readily available without long waiting lists? What services are provided to those in jails? Is stigma a factor in what group gets research and treatment funds at the federal level?

As long as brain disorders and addictions are stigmatized there can be no gold standards for health care. There is no health problem that is just physical or just mental. If science can now detect depression by measuring the heart beat, can’t we in Maine conclude the human body is totally integrated?

Mainers let’s be the first state in the nation to demand the end of health care stigma. Those with brain disorders and addictions and their families would love you for it!