Mental health: America’s elephant in the room

In today’s political environment of soundbites, prepared party-line talking points, agenda-driven news media stars and non-stop information gushing at every American like a river of lava heading down a mountain top, it’s easy to lose sight of what the real problems are in our country and where they rank.

While a myriad of specific issues seem to lay somewhat dormant in the national spotlight until their turn comes about on the never-ending news cycle carousel — some that come to mind immediately would be national defense, the economy, crime, the deficit, gun control, abortion and gay marriage, among others — others seem to lay in the weeds. Disguised. Turned away in large part because of one reason or another (none of them acceptable).

The mental health crises in America is a problem like that. And make no mistake — it is a crises of gargantuan proportion. Whether politicians, family members, co-workers, clergy, teachers and administrators, and folks with outdated views want to talk about it or not, it is America’s giant, pink elephant in the room.

The stigma and denial associated with mental health disorders like bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia are real — I’ve witnessed both. Like many others who write about mental illness, I’ve been affected both near and far by the sometimes shocking and horrifying wrath of such illnesses. My stories aren’t any worse than many people I know and many who will read this post, so I’m not going to delve into those experiences. The much greater point is that alarming numbers of Americans are faced with the first- or second-hand consequences that mental illnesses cause. Those consequences are often heartbreaking and, all too often, preventable.

The numbers are there, the data is there — it’s all there. Look them up. Whether it’s the war veteran back from Afghanistan down the the street or the family member who was long ago dubbed as one who “struggles” or has “issues,” these illnesses are affecting us, our families, co-workers, schoolmates and friends and the lack of available help for the mentally ill is — I refuse to sugarcoat this — disgraceful.

In a 60 Minutes piece ( that aired Jan. 26, the story of Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds was profiled with Deeds explaining to CBS reporter Scott Pelley how, on the night of Nov. 19, his son, Gus Deeds, attacked him, stabbing him several times before committing suicide by turning a gun on himself. As the senator explained, Gus was less than 24 hours removed from being on an emergency custody order, but was released because no psychiatric bed was available at the time. Showing clearly visible scars on his face from the attack, Creigh talked about how the system had failed his son and about how he didn’t want Gus to be defined by what happened that fateful night.

Tragic as the Deeds’ story is, it’s not the norm, which is why I believe we continue to, as a nation, look away from the problem of the large numbers of Americans suffering from mental health issues. Most suffering from a mental illness — about 26 percent of Americans 18 or above in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health — won’t ever act out in such a violent way toward another person, but a staggering amount of those diagnosed with a mental illness will attempt suicide at least once. In fact, more than 90 percent of Americans who do commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness, according to the NIMH.

In a story that appeared on CNN’s website in November, numbers from the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center showed that the number of state psychiatric beds available in the U.S. was about 43,000 as of 2010. To put it into prospective, that number represents about one-tenth of what it was in 1960. There are also similar numbers I could cite, numbers that would illustrate the extreme shortage of psychiatrists in Ameriac or the toll that emergency rooms across the country endure from countless individuals using the ER as a last resort. The list would be enough for another 10 blog posts. Though far too many people don’t want to talk about it, we’re failing miserably in this country in the mental health department.

What we’re dealing with is a fiscal problem and, at times, a safety problem, but, more than that, it’s a human problem. It affects our sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, parents, friends…..this crises touches nearly everyone in some way. The pain of having a mental illness or loving someone who does is a unique pain, a helpless and unrelenting pain.

One of the true tragedies is the fact that we only seem to talk about mental health issues when incidents like Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Aurora or Fort Hood happen. Everyone reading this knows what those places represent. Only a hermit living in a cave wouldn’t know about the mass shootings that took place within the past 10 years at those places. Yet, what do our politicians and do? They take advantage of those tragedies, usually to either lobby for more gun control or lobby for more guns allowed for private citizens or more armed police in certain public areas or schools. In other words, they play politics.

I’m not about to get into a gun debate, that’s not what this post is about, but I will state this with no apology: Our political leaders — too often while spouting off about gay marriage, whatever war we’re in at the time, gun control, when a baby becomes a baby, food stamps, government spending and the latest political sex scandal — have failed us on the mental health issue.

America needs to make some changes to the way it thinks about, combats, funds and ultimately frames the problem of the mentally ill. These people, by and large, are not monsters — they’re the people we interact with every day. Waiting until a mentally ill person commits a crime and tossing them in jail or prison (places that are packed with mentally ill individuals who receive little or no treatment) doesn’t work. Waiting until they attempt or commit suicide doesn’t work. Turning the other way and pretending the problem doesn’t exist work.

Turning the tide of this issue will take a lot. It will take a new way of looking at the overall problem, funding, awareness, leadership and, maybe most importantly, the ability to have a meaningful national dialogue. We can do better. We can do a lot better.

In fact, let me rephrase that: We need to do a lot better.

Here comes Johnny (maybe)

I want “Johnny Football” to be a Minnesota Viking.

The Texas A&M star quarterback just seems like exactly the type of player the Vikings have been lacking since, well, Fran Tarkenton.

Some think that Johnny Manziel at 6-foot-1, could run into problems in the National Football League because of his height, but the recent success of diminutive Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson seems to have quelled that notion for many, including myself.

I think Manziel – the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner for the Aggies – is going to be a star in the NFL. Though it’s incredibly cliché to state this, Johnny simply has “it,” that intangible X-factor that the great QBs have.

Nobody, of course, can say for certain exactly what this quality is, but signal-callers like Brett Favre, Tarkenton, Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Aaron Rodgers and Steve Young all had it. Some simply blow you away with their physical skills and were prodigies from day one (Dan Marino and John Elway come to mind), but others just have the desired “it.”

Now, I could be wrong, Johnny Football could turn out to be an NFL bust. A 10-minute study of all the quarterbacks in the NFL draft over the course of the past 10 years will quickly prove that drafting a QB in the first round is anything but a sure thing. Many end up flaming out, but some make it big and a star QB is the single most important ingredient to winning in the NFL these days.

This spring, the Vikings, after a dreadful 2013 season, have the No. 8 pick in the first round – within striking distance of Manziel. Many think, after his remarkable four touchdown performance against Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve, that Manziel will be gone by the time the Vikings draft. But, hey, you never know.

Funny things can happen on draft day. Teams trade up, trade back, players can fall (think Rodgers in 2005) and players can witness their stock rise, much to the surprise of even the most plugged-in pundits. Anything can happen.

As a lifelong Viking fan, however, I know that things have a way of not working out for Minnesota’s NFL franchise. I’m not expecting anything different during the draft in May. Besides, Manziel, an underclassmen, hasn’t even officially declared for the draft yet.

With all that in mind, however, can you imagine Johnny running the show for the Vikings? I can just see him making plays all over the field, utilizing Minnesota’s offensive weapons like Adrian Peterson, budding-star Cordarrelle Patterson, Kyle Rudolph and Greg Jennings.

That would be fun, but, like I mentioned, I’m not getting my hopes up. It’s not like I’ve pre-ordered my number 2 Manziel Vikings jersey (home purple) or anything. That would be crazy.





Passing of ‘Handy Andy’ stirs Wisconsin baseball memories

Many who read this probably don’t know the name Andy Pafko or associate him with some of the most memorable moments in baseball history.

After all, Pafko, a slick outfielder who once hit 36 home runs in a season, hadn’t appeared in a Major League Baseball game in more than 50 years at the time of his death Tuesday, was never elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and never won an MVP award. Pafko did, however, have a knack for being in the middle of the action and, for what it’s worth, will always hold a special place in this baseball fan’s heart.

Though I was born in Minnesota, I grew up in western Wisconsin, moving there when I was a 3-year-old. Not long after that move, I fell in love with the game of baseball and pretty much everything associated with it — the smell of a newly-oiled glove, pitching to my father in the yard and collecting baseball cards, just to name a few. Now, I was born more than two decades after Pafko played that last pro game, but you can imagine the excitement I had when my best friend’s mother told me that a former major leaguer named Andy Pafko was born in Boyceville, Wis., which was where my best friend lived.

Much like North Dakota (well, before the Bakken oil boom, anyway), the power in Wisconsin has always been on the more populated eastern side of the state in places like Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay. With all due respect to a fine area with some really good people, there’s not a lot going on in the western part of the state. That is, western Wisconsin isn’t the type of area you’d expect to be a breeding ground for pro athletes (or famous people in general). But “Handy Andy,” as Pafko was known, was from Boyceville and, therefore, he was automatically less than a god, but more than a man to me.

Typically, a kid born so long after the playing days of a non-Hall of Fame slugging outfielder wouldn’t have as much of an effect on said kid as Pafko’s interesting baseball career had on me. Generally remembered best as Chicago Cub, Pafko had his best years on Chicago’s north side. Pafko spent his first several years in the big leagues with the Cubs and was an All-Star four times in the Windy City. In 1945, he batted .298 and drove in 110 runs for the last Cubs team to play in the World Series (of course, they lost).

In 1957, Pafko played on the only Wisconsin team to ever win a World Series title when he appeared in 83 games that year for the Milwaukee Braves as he entered the twilight of his career.

Pafko was also the forgotten left fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 during Bobby Thompson’s famous “shot heard round the world” home run that sailed over Pafko’s head at the Polo Grounds and sent the New York Giants into the playoffs. As if all that — and 213 career big league home runs himself over the course of 17 seasons — wasn’t enough, Pafko became famous all over again long after his playing days ended when his 1952 Topps baseball card became a hot item for serious card collectors. That was because Pafko’s card that year was card #1 in the Topps set, which meant that it was often damaged by youngsters who took to binding sets together with rubber bands. Because Pafko’s card was so often damaged, mint versions of the card became hard to find and much more valuable than they would have otherwise been (the card once sold at auction for more than $80,000).

In the hit 1993 baseball movie “The Sandlot,” the ghost of Babe Ruth appeared in a dream to one of the movie’s main characters, famously proclaiming that “heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” I suppose that’s kind of how I feel about Pafko. Though I never met the man, and don’t really know much about how he lived his life, I certainly will always remember him. Unlike any other sport, baseball seems to have a way of cultivating its legends through the generations. Ask any 10-year-old playing baseball who Lou Gehrig is and I bet 99 percent of them know the name. Do the same for any young football fan, instead using the name Otto Graham, and not so much.

Any true baseball fan knows and respect the game’s history and I was always aware of and respected Pafko’s career and accomplishments. During my first trip inside Wrigley Field in 2005, I was sure to get a picture of myself standing next to a large Pafko banner hanging in the concourse. When I was young, I wanted to be a major league ballplayer, just like Pafko, and though those aspirations never did get off the ground, I was able to procure an appearance in a Little League all-star game one summer in the 1990s, a game that was played at a field in Boyceville named in Pafko’s honor.

On October 8, my birthday, Pafko died in Michigan at the ripe old age of 92 and I think I can take the liberty of offering this: Andy Pafko will always be remembered by Wisconsin baseball fans.





The real American pastime

As it has been for decades, baseball is referred to as “America’s Pastime” and is often mentioned with apple pie and Chevrolet as pop culture symbols of Americana.

I’m not one to be down on baseball — it will always be my first love when it comes to sports — but the Grand Old Game is this country’s pastime only in name these days. A number of years ago, pro football rocketed past every other major U.S. sport and became the real pastime sport of the land.

Any way you slice or dice it — TV ratings, merchandise sales, sports talk radio play — the National Football League is clearly king in 2013 on the American sports landscape. Everybody seems to be paying attention to the NFL nowadays. Heck, even people with no rooting interest in a team are watching games and looking up statistics thanks to the rise of fantasy football (something that will soon take over my life). The NFL has morphed from something that men watch after church on Sundays to a pop culture phenomenon.

I could give a hundred examples of why this is true, but here’s one that I think should illustrate the point: The NFL recently moved to switch its collegiate draft to a prime time slot because so many people were watching (it used to occur during the day on a Saturday and Sunday). That’s right, a prime time TV slot for fans to see which college players their team draft months before the first snap of the season. Everybody pays attention to the NFL.

I’m no different than the majority of Americans these days — I like me some NFL football. As a Vikings fan, it’s been difficult to stay that way over the years. In 1998, I was just one of probably thousands of Vikings fans who slipped into what surely were undiagnosed episodes of clinical depression when the purple lost to Atlanta in the NFC championship game after going 15-1 in the regular season. In early 2010, I swore to my father that I would never again watch a Vikings game (blaming him for introducing me to a life of championship-less misery) after Brett Favre tossed an unthinkable interception to all but give away another NFC title game in New Orleans.

In any case, I never did drop my favorite NFL squad, though, believe me, I’ve questioned that decision at times. Though I’m not from North Dakota, it’s easy to see that the Peace Garden State is Vikings country and, with the preseason now in full swing, another regular season of pigskin is right around the corner. And, hey, we have the reigning Most Valuable Player in Adrian Peterson and this new kid, Cordarrelle Patterson, looks like a young Randy Moss. Could this be the year?

I’m not ready to say that yet, but the Boston Red Sox did eventually break their curse and win another World Series, so maybe the Vikings will break through one day. When that happens (yes, when), I’ll be at the parade — you can bet on that. In the mean time, I’m just happy that football season is almost upon us again.

America’s Weiner roast

By now, I’m sure most readers of this blog know about America’s latest political sex scandal involving embattled New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner.

For those who aren’t familiar, here’s a quick rundown: Weiner, a married man since 2010, is a former New York congressman who had a very public fall from grace in 2011 when it was discovered that he had been sending sexually explicit messages and photographs to a woman through his Twitter account. After a public apology and resignation, Weiner resurfaced in the national spotlight, however, in May when he declared his plans to run for the most prestigious mayoral seat in the nation.

Though he had some real momentum going in his campaign, Weiner again found himself in the midst of a sex scandal recently when he admitted, following the release of more photos and explicit messages, that he has had sextual (yes, that is my new made-up word for relationships based on sexting) relations with several women since he resigned from his congressional seat.

In any case, Weiner has been in the news lately. A lot. My personal reaction is this: Yawn. Simply put, I could care less, whether or not I live in New York City. I don’t understand why we, as Americans, seem to be so fascinated with the sex lives of our public figures……..or anyone else, for that matter.

Some will say that we should be concerned if Weiner sexts with some college student or if Bill Clinton fools around with an intern. They’ll say we should care because it means they are dishonest, unfaithful and immoral. To those arguments, I would state simply that I don’t care what goes on in another person’s marriage or relationship. Why does it matter at all? If no laws are being broken, it’s none of my concern.

I want my favorite baseball player to be able to hit home runs or strike people out. I want the movies stars I watch to bring their characters to life on the big screen. I want my politicians and administrators to lead and make the decisions they see fit to maintain and improve our quality of life as citizens. I couldn’t possibly care less, however, what they do on their own time to get their jollies. If the significant others of these loverboy public figures choose to stand by their proverbial men, that’s their choice and I’m certainly not one to get up on my moral high horse and judge those decisions. Hey, if I were Huma Abedin, Weiner’s wife, there’s no way I would get up in front of TV cameras and defend him — that sounds humiliating. But I’m not her.

In general, I just don’t get America’s fascination with sex scandals. It’s a waste of time, in my opinion. It’s like a friend of mine recently said: “When you’re talking about people’s behavior below the waist, all bets are off.” Trust me, people, if there were somehow public copies of reports detailing everyone’s sexual histories, there would be a lot of surprises. Frankly, I don’t want to know. Let there be no doubt, though, that there’s a good chance that the conservative-looking and acting person you know from work or that family member that you’ve always thought of as an angel or choir boy is into some pretty kinky stuff. Like I said, I don’t want to know.

It’s time to get past sex, America. It’s a part of life, but it’s just one aspect of it. If Paris Hilton makes a sex tape or Anthony Weiner sends explicit messages to people who aren’t his wife, I just simply don’t think we should really care. Besides, these guys mess up when they lie about these things, not so much in the actual deeds themselves.

I don’t see it happening anytime soon, but it sure would be nice if we worried more about whether or not people like Weiner were good at leading our institutions, cities, counties, states, schools, corporations and our country in general than about what they do to satisfy their sexual appetites.

Clemente hits a home run after blunder

Poor A.J. Clemente.

If you’re breathing and have access to a media outlet, you probably know Clemente’s story by now.

In the unlikely case you need a fresher on Clemente, here it is: A recent hire by KFYR-TV out of Bismarck, Clemente opened an April 21 newscast on the station by uttering a couple of choice words. Since this is a family blog, I won’t go into the exact words he said, but they rhyme with “bucking” and “fit.” I’m assuming you can connect the dots from there.

Now, Clemente had done some reporting for the station, but that day was his first behind the desk. Quite the introduction, huh? Within hours, the video clip went viral and the following day it seemed to be all anyone in North Dakota was talking about.

Though it wasn’t a complete surprise, Clemente was let go by KFYR management shortly after the mishap after originally being suspended. In the old days, it would have been safe to assume that Clemente’s days in front of a camera — at least as pertaining to him making a living doing so — would be over. But, that was then and this is now.

We like viral internet videos. In fact, having a viral video might be the quickest way to gain 15 of minutes of fame there is. Being a good sport about the entire blunder — obviously an honest mistake — Clemente has embraced his slip up and subsequent firing. In the days following his dismissal, Clemente was scheduled to appear on several national talk shows, including “The Today Show” and “The Late Show” with David Letterman.

Personally, I admire Clemente’s ability to laugh at himself, take everything in stride and face the music. In fact, while I’m not admonishing his actions in the least, he did mention in one of his interviews that the cameras started rolling 30 seconds early, so I can’t entirely blame Mr. Clemente.

Plus, I can’t imagine it would be the easiest thing in the world to go on national TV and explain your most embarrassing moment. Is A.J. simply taking advantage of his moment in the national spotlight or is he keeping himself out there in hopes of getting another crack at TV news?

I have no idea, but, as a human being who has made plenty of mistakes, I hope he gets that opportunity if that’s what he wants. If not, I have a feeling he’ll be just fine in life. He’s young, has an education and has a good attitude about life. Some people would have hid in a closet for a week after something like that.

So good luck to A.J. as he moves forward. After the next viral video comes out, we’ll all forget about this one, anyway. Besides, he’s picked up about 12,000 new Twitter followers (at ClementeAJ) and now he has a great story to tell to tell his grandchildren……when they’re old enough.


TFKS vs. Gophers will be MIA

With playoff hockey upon us, and coming on the heels of my first-ever trip to Ralph Engelstad Arena, I’ve been thinking recently what a shame it is that the Minnesota-North Dakota rivalry will be, at least temporarily, kaput.

Yes, this is a topic that has been beat to death in recent months (and years), but my trip to Grand Forks reinforced why it’s such a disappointing deal. As everyone knows, the Gophers are moving to the new creation known as the Big Ten hockey conference while the TFKS (Team Formerly Known as the Sioux) will move to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

As we’ve all seen the past couple years in football, money rules the day in major college revenue sports and the breakup of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association is no different. Hockey wonks and fans know this story, too: The Big Ten has a successful TV network and it wants to continue to capitalize on that with the sport of men’s hockey. After the Big Ten made it’s move, the other dominoes began to fall as well.

Now to the full disclosure part of this blog post: I’m a Minnesota fan. Always have been. Moving to the Peace Garden State, of course, doesn’t change that fact even though I’m in enemy territory when it comes to collegiate hockey. Although I’m a natural sworn enemy of North Dakota hockey, I was really impressed with The Ralph after attending a game there in early March. Great arena — yes, it’s much better than Mariucci — with a great atmosphere. It’s just a shame the Gophers and TFKS won’t be playing there next season.

When you get right down to it, there’s something about it that makes me sick to my stomach. College sports are about tradition, at least that’s what they’re supposed to be about. Michigan is supposed to play Ohio State every year in football. Duke and North Carolina are supposed to play every year in men’s basketball, Red Sox and Yankees, Packers and Vikings, Coke and Pepsi (ok, so those last few aren’t college hockey). The point is: Minnesota and North Dakota should be playing two series every year. Every single year. The fact that they won’t be…’s just simply not right.

I don’t like how traditional rivalries have been discarded like peanut shells in college sports in recent years. As a traditionalist (and what some would describe as a curmudgeon-in-the-making), I think rivalries — especially in collegiate sports — need to be cherished. Preserved. Celebrated. But, alas, like I mentioned, money rules the day. The Gophers and TFKS will play again, just not for a few years and it will be out of conference. Actually, in all reality, all it would take is a feud of some kind for one of the schools to pull out of playing nonconference games — being in different leagues, nothing is set in stone.

I don’t care what anybody says — I don’t like it. Not one bit. Minnesota and North Dakota are huge rivals and they should play every year. Period. It’s only right. I just hope that the NCAA doesn’t one look back one day and wonder why its product is on the decline (which it isn’t yet) because tradition has been bucked for the almighty dollar. Fact is, nobody really cares about Minnesota vs. Penn State in hockey, Rutgers vs. Iowa in football or Utah vs. UCLA in basketball.

I just hope the Gophers and TFKS meet again this season in the NCAA playoffs. Now that would be something special.

Bucyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart

By now, I’m sure most of you who are reading this know about the devastating wildfire that nearly wiped out the small southwestern North Dakota town of Bucyrus on Oct. 17. The fire, which displaced 27 people in the tiny community, became national news and was found in many newspapers and on a number of national websites like the Huffington Post, Yahoo!, The Weather Channel and many more.

Remarkably, no people or animals were injured in the blaze. That’s the good news. The bad news is that four occupied homes were destroyed — burned completely to the ground. It’s one thing to read about a story like that, but it’s quite another to be in the middle of such a disaster. Granted, this wasn’t a war zone and, thankfully, nobody paid the ultimate price in the Bucyrus fire, but a number of people lost everything they had. We’re talking everything and that’s incredibly sad.

Linda Wiskus was returning home from work at about 5 p.m. that fateful day — a day that had been not unlike any regular Wednesday — when she was told she had a few minutes to get what she could gather out of her home before she needed to evacuate. Aided by nearly 70 mph winds, a fire was raging out of control nearby and Linda’s house was in its direct path. Linda grabbed a safe with some important documents inside and grabbed a pair of jeans and some socks. She didn’t have time for anything else, didn’t even have time to unload the groceries from her car.

Later, Linda lamented about the fact that she wasn’t able to retrieve some of the items that had been passed down in her family over the years. How, though, was she to know that her home would literally burn to the ground in a matter of a few hours? What would you take if you had five minutes to get anything you could out of your home? How would someone process that information when a few minutes earlier, they were thinking about what to make for dinner?

Thanks to the graciousness of the good folks over at the Bowman County Sheriff’s Office, I was able to be in the middle of the fire as it swallowed the town whole. Walking around in an environment that could only be described as apocalyptic, I must say that I also gained an even greater appreciation for our firefighters law enforcement personnel. I was there for about 20 minutes taking pictures, dealing with dirt blowing in my face, smoke-obstructed sight lines in every direction, red-hot embers darting about everywhere and extreme heat, the likes of which I had never experienced. Sound uncomfortable? It was, but those firefighters, many of them, were there all afternoon and all night. Some hadn’t seen their families as of mid-afternoon Thursday.

But that’s what firefighters do — they run in when everyone else is running out. So, what will happen with Bucyrus moving forward? As of now, we don’t really know. Right now, it’s time for cleanup…..and healing. To nobody’s surprise, people in the immediate area have stepped to the plate to do what they can to help the fire victims. Not just people in Adams County or Bowman County, though — people from all across the Dakotas and, although I don’t know this as fact, I’m sure people from other parts of the country as well.

Usually saved for metaphorical purposes, the phrase “rise from the ashes” is exactly the task that lies in front of the Bucyrus fire victims. People like Mike and Evelyn Krug, who moved to Bucyrus in 1968. People like Vern and Lucy Milliren (the latter of “Lucy’s Frame Shop” fame) or Linda Wiskus and her son, Justin, or the young family that lost the home they had moved into only a month earlier. No question, this was a terrible event. One that only the most cold-hearted of us would wish on another. But it can also serve as a reminder of some things that are truly invaluable in life — family, friends, neighbors, a sense of community and, yes, some fearless firefighters who face what most of us would run from — and how lucky we are to have them.