KEENE — Monadnock Family Services held an all-night vigil in Central Square Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the Community Mental Health Act.
Central Square was lit with candles, some honoring those who suffer from mental illness, some in remembrance of those who have lost their lives to mental illness.
During a brief ceremony at 8 p.m., Mary Cotton, 48, of Keene talked about her battle with mental illness and how community mental health services turned her life around and brought her hope.
She suffered with depression for 28 years before she "hit rock bottom," she said, and her friend, Jack Zellor, talked her into seeing a therapist through Monadnock Family Services. She continues to see a therapist every week and takes her medication.
Now 12 years later, Cotton is set to graduate from Keene State College — where she maintains a 4.0 grade point average — in December with an A.S. degree in art. She plans to go on to earn her B.S., she said, and eventually practice art therapy with people who have also suffered from mental illness.
"Mental illness is a disease," she said. "It's very important to talk about mental illness without being judged. ... If we all reach out and help each other, we can conquer mental illness."
Cotton credits Zellor, her children and grandchildren and Monadnock Family Services with saving her life.
She also credits the Aspire program at Keene State College, which provides support and resources to students with disabilities, with making her education possible.
The Community Mental Health Act signed into law by President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago sought to offer alternatives to the institutionalization of the mentally ill.
Monadnock Family Service CEO Philip Wyzik said while the act has moved the treatment of the mentally ill forward, there is still much work to be done in to de-stigmatize the illness, raise awareness, fund research for medical advancements and find more funding for community resources and housing for the mentally ill.
While about 50 people, including Keene Mayor Kendall Lane, gathered for the 8 p.m. ceremony, a smaller group of people held a vigil in the square until dawn.