Cover story: Mental health challenges have no age limits

An elderly woman sits at a table in a park shelter

Rosemary: 'I want to make a difference'

By Gerald Hay

Rosemary Pappert of Roeland Park has lived with bipolar disorder for more than four decades. For the first 32 years, her life was relatively normal – a mother, wife and teacher.

For the last 44 years, Rosemary has been helped by Johnson County Mental Health Center for treatment of mental health concerns. In sharing her mental health journey, she encourages aging peers in Johnson County to seek help when facing personal mental health challenges as they age. Resources are available. They are not alone.

“It’s OK to say you’re not OK,” Rosemary said, sitting at a picnic table at R Park in Roeland Park.

Her journey began after giving birth to her third child. She was initially diagnosed with postpartum depression after childbirth. Rosemary sought help at the Mental Health Center where additional assessment indicated she had bipolar disorder.

Since then, she developed a long and trusting relationship with Johnson County Mental Health Center staff for help and guidance with her mental health condition.

“They work there not just for the job, but with passion. They care about you. It’s a relief to know that,” she said.

“When I first started having problems I felt alone, and I didn’t know where to turn. I just didn’t feel right but I still functioned.”

That functioning included staying active in life.

She taught second grade for 17 years at St. Pius School where she attended as a girl and where her three children were also educated. Rosemary has been married to Rudy, her husband of 52 years, and welcomed five grandchildren to the family nest. She lives in the same house that was her home
as a 10-year-old girl. She has been a member of St. Pius X Catholic Church since her childhood.

“Anyone with a mental health issue should never give up hope and never lose faith in God,” Rosemary said. Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme highs and lows in mood and energy.

Manic episodes may include symptoms such as high energy, reduced need for sleep, racing thoughts and high-risk behaviors. Depressive episodes may include symptoms such as low energy, low motivation and loss of interest in daily activities. Mood episodes can last from days to months at a time.

There isn’t a single cause of bipolar disorder, but genetics, family history, brain structure and stressful or traumatic events are often linked.

Bipolar disorder is treated with a combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes. Treatment is usually lifelong.

“In some highs, sometimes I felt I could go seven days without sleep,” Rosemary said. “The lows were horribly awful depression.”

The good news is depression and bipolar disorder are real, treatable mental health conditions.

Johnson County Mental Health Center has served as a beacon of hope for her along the way. Her treatment has involved a combination of medication management, mental health counseling and periodic personal assessment by staff every few months.

“Johnson County Mental Health Center has good doctors and a staff that’s always helpful and concerned. I felt I had people that were interested, and I didn’t feel alone,” Rosemary said. “I hope others realize that it’s OK to ask for help.”

Monitoring of medication is important. Pappert was experiencing other issues until visiting a doctor at JCMHC. He had read information that prolonged use of lithium to treat bipolar disorder can cause a high risk of developing chronic kidney disease which often goes undetected for years. Tests revealed she had kidney disease and her medication was changed.

“It was like a miracle. Because I certainly felt like me again and that has been a real blessing,” she said as a participant in a fundraising video for the Friends of the Johnson County Mental Health Center.

Rosemary Pappert has had a good outcome, but mental health continues to take a sad toll among all ages.

Many aging adults with mental health issues are not getting the treatment they need. According to a 2022 report by the National Coalition on Mental Health and Aging, fewer than 50% of older adults with mental health and/or substance use disorders receive treatment. Effects included higher risks of depression, anxiety and trouble with sleep.

Older adults are also at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation because they are more susceptible to risk factors like living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness and hearing loss.

In 2020, individuals 85 and older had the highest suicide rate of all age groups.

Rosemary thinks living and coping with a mental health condition begins with education with reliable information and seeking treatment, advice and guidance.

That’s her story and message to others.

“If I can help people to know that there are resources out there and there are places to turn to and that’s what I want to do,” Rosemary said. “I want to make a difference.”