Detecting Mental Illness

Actors Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Fox star in the new movie The Soloist. It's a true story that deals with the subject of mental illness. Here in Houston, experts say a key to fighting the disease is early detection. Bill Stamps reports on a class that can help you diagnose a friend or maybe a family member.
"You all wanna sign in for me."

One by one they file into a small conference room where Suzzett Sova, who's with the county's mental health department, is teaching a class called Mental Health First Aid. Sova says the course is for everyone. Maybe you think a friend or family member of behaving abnormally, or maybe you're a manager or professor. Sova says the class can help you understand the behavior of your students or employees.

"Maybe my family member does have a mental illness and is not just being lazy or not has a character defect and weak. Or being stupid or any of the numerous negative stigma that is out there because of mental health."

In the movie The Soloist currently playing in theaters, Robert Downey Jr. plays a reporter who meets a homeless musician played by Jamie Foxx. Foxx's character Nathanial Ayers once studied the cello at Julliard but is now living on the streets after suffering from schizophrenia.

"A year ago, I met a man who was down on his luck. He's got a gift. I thought I might be able to help him."

Houston resident Alexandria Foot says she can relate to that character. At age 20, she began seeing things and hearing voices. One time, she even told police to come get her.

"I was at home, I took ill. And I called the cops. They said you don't really wanna say that, 'cause that's a severe crime. If you feel like you want to be arrested. You can't just really say that you want the cops to come get you."

While the character in the movies wound up living on the street, Foote says she is doing well and is able to control her illness with medication.

"It's managed with much medication and much therapy and support of my mom."

Counselor and instructor Suzzett Sova says many times there are reasons for a person's bizarre behavior that have nothing to do with mental illness. But the key is diagnosing the illness before it's too late.

"When it's too late is when a person commits suicide or they've become homicidal and taken someone's life. And at that point they want someone to kill them as well. It's too late. "

Sova's class is a four week course. Bill Stamps, KUHF-Houston Public Radio News.