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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Erasing The Stigma: One Dallas Man's Success Story Living With Mental Illness

BJ Austin, KERA

Juan Martinez is a popular waiter at a busy restaurant. He's a friendly, professional and dependable. But the 34-year-old is living a different life from a few years ago, when bipolar disorder had him in a tailspin.

 “I was never able to keep a job," Martinez says. "I used to have panic attacks at work. I would go to the restroom 10-25 times a day, not to use the restroom, but to go in there and freak out. It’s hard when you hear people talking about people with mental illness, like oh he’s crazy, people that have bipolar, they always end up committing crazy crimes. That can really affect a person.”

Stories like his will be in the spotlight tonight when Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings launches a public dialogue at the City Performance Hall in the Arts District.  It's called "Erasing the Stigma: Mental Illness and the Search for Solutions," and it's sponsored by KERA and The Dallas Morning News. (All tickets to the 7 p.m. event are taken. We'll have a live audio stream here, and the forum will air Feb. 20 on KERA-Channel 13. You can send your questions for the panelists via Twitter using the hashtag #erasingthestigma.)

For 15 years, Juan Martinez had the classic bipolar cycles of mania and depression.

“My life kept on getting better, it would crash; getting better, it would crash,” he says.

Diagnosed with the mental illness at age 19 and hospitalized for a time, he spent the next decade on and off his medication, and using drugs and alcohol. A DWI landed him in jail for several months.  Five years ago, his life was once again in shambles, he went to see a counselor at the the Dallas County public mental health clinic.  

“I told her it’s pointless. I’m throwing in the towel," he remembers. "I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to lose it all again and nothing hurts more than that.”

But the peer counselor would have none of that. She told him she too had bipolar disorder and now had a job helping others. And that was Juan Martinez’s "ah-ha" moment. He later became a peer counselor himself, until state budget cuts forced layoffs at the clinic.  He now works as a volunteer counselor with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Sherry Cusumano, president of the Dallas chapter of NAMI, wishes there were more success stories like Juan Martinez.  She welcomes the discussion about erasing the stigma of mental illness, and wants to see more money for treatment, early diagnosis and intervention, especially with school children.    

“Average funding for mental illness is approximately $125 per capita in the U.S.  In Texas, average per capita funding is approximately $35," Cusumano said. "That’s how shamefully low we’re funded.”

Cusumano says the public mental health program NorthStar, which serves a seven county region in North Texas, has seen a 30 percent jump in the number of patients over the past decade, but state funding hasn’t budged.  

Dr. Roger Kehtan, family practitioner at Baylor Medical Center, says most mental disorders are first diagnosed by a pediatrician or family doctor. And he says getting those patients into treatment can be tough.  

“Sometimes we have low insurance issues. Sometimes we have major issues with Medicare, Medicaid. Most psychiatrists in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are not taking new Medicare patients or new Medicaid patients," Khetan says. "Generally, internal medicine or a primary care doctor will be the one who will have to take care of the patient.”

But he says it takes a lot more than that: more psychiatric emergency rooms and inpatient facilities; outpatient treatment; counseling and support groups.  He wants to see a bipartisan commitment to mental health and more money from lawmakers.

Juan Martinez says he’s lucky.  He found a peer support group, a great doctor, the right balance of medication, and is living a regular life.  

“I have a girlfriend. I have a job. I just started making payments on a brand new car," Martinez beams.  "Even if you have a mental illness, all you have to have is a little bit of faith and have someone give you some tools.”

It’s those kinds of tools Mayor Rawlings and a panel of experts want to share. 

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.