After tragedy, Susan Moreno dedicated herself to mental-illness recovery and suicide prevention

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After tragedy, Susan Moreno dedicated herself to mental-illness recovery and suicide prevention

Daniel Moreno was a handsome, intelligent young man with a bright future. He had a problem-free childhood and planned to go to Harvard.

But at age 17, things began to change. He started exhibiting increasingly bizarre behavior, and in 2000, at 18, Daniel was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"He went from a kid with potential ... to a person who at times would lose touch with reality," says his mother, Susan Moreno. "After he was diagnosed, he lost most of his friends. ... He spent a lot of time in the hospital."

In December 2005, at the age of 23, Daniel committed suicide.

Susan admits that when her son was diagnosed, she didn't know what schizophrenia was. "I started educating myself about mental illness and learning a lot about it. I became very active in the community, trying to create awareness and reduce stigma. I never wanted another mom to be in the position I was in, to be totally unaware of the symptoms and the signs."

Now, 12 years after her son's diagnosis, Susan says she's done a 180. A former small-business owner, Susan is now employed in the mental-health field at MIKID—Mentally Ill Kids in Distress—where she works with local families who have children with behavioral-health needs. She also gives mental-illness and suicide-prevention presentations at local schools, and writes a blog called Grey Matters (tucsoncitizen.com/greymatters).

Susan says she starts her presentations by talking about mental illness and, more specifically, depression. "We talk about the systems of depression, because (it) can be very serious and lead to suicide. ... As a very simplistic definition, depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. It's an illness just like any other. It's not caused by bad parenting. It's not caused by someone being lazy. It's a biological brain disorder."

Susan stresses that depression and other mental illnesses are not "something that people can snap out of." However, they are treatable, and recovery is possible. "Successful treatment usually not only entails medication, but there's also a need for therapy, and there's a huge need for support. Support needs to come from ... family members, friends and community."

For parents who notice behavioral changes in a child, Susan recommends that the situation be taken seriously, and adds that the child should get an evaluation by a licensed, experienced psychiatrist or psychologist. "There's no test they can give to find out if a person has a mental illness. It's all based on symptoms, so you need to work with someone who really is an expert."

A helpful educational tool is the Mental Health First Aid class, a 12-hour program that "provides basic mental-health education and approach skills for community members." Visit the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona's website (www.cpsa-rbha.org/mhfa) for a training schedule.

For those in crisis and people who witness another person's mental-health crisis, Susan encourages a call to the Crisis Response Center's community-wide crisis line, 622-6000. The center, at 2802 E. District St., opened last summer. It was approved in a 2006 bond election.

"If you see someone who is acting bizarrely, and you are concerned, anyone can call the Crisis Response Center and report it. ... They send out a team of people to evaluate that person. Based on their findings, if they feel that a person needs to go to the hospital, they can take them. At the very least, they can refer them to resources."

Susan credits Neal Cash, CEO of the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, for helping to open the center. "He is probably the most important individual who advocated and pushed for the center," she says.

Cash will be honored at the Daniel Moreno Award Dinner and Silent Auction on Friday, Sept. 7, at Skyline Country Club. The award dinner was started in 2007 by Susan and her family to recognize local individuals who have advanced awareness about mental-health recovery. Sarah Martin; Peter Likins, a retired UA president; and Adrienne Sainz, a clinician at La Frontera, will also be honored. Visit planetaurora.org for ticket info.

During her educational presentations, Susan says she's seen a lot of light bulbs going off, with potential suicides avoided, and students coming forward to get treatment. She believes awareness about mental illness and suicide has increased over the last decade, but there's still more work to be done.

"We need to get out there and educate people, because treatment works, and people need to know that," she says.

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