SYRACUSE -- Camille Houston has taught herself to unjumble the emotions that taunt her, to take paper and colored pencils and translate her negative feelings into artwork both provocative and beautiful.
The 20-year-old woman considers herself one of the lucky ones. Although she was unfortunate to be born with schizoaffective disorder, Houston has good doctors who have helped her find effective treatment.
"It's been hard, but you can make it," she said. "I made it my whole life with mental illness. I've been through hard times, but they've made me stronger and built me up to who I am."
Houston appears in "On the Edge: Mental Health in Utah," a KUED Channel 7 documentary that debuts at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Producers Nancy Green and Sally Shaum contacted Houston because she serves on a youth activist board that works to remove the stigma from mental illness and advocates for increased funding and access to programs for the mentally ill.
"I am so proud of Camille," Shaum said. "She is quite the young voice and force, an amazing advocate for youth with mental illness. I am a cheerleader for her, and she is a cheerleader for the rest. Not that many people are willing to speak about mental illness, but she is."
Houston, diagnosed as bipolar at age 7, has a disorder that can cause hallucinations, unusual thoughts, disorganized thinking, mood changes and manic episodes.
Her symptoms and abilities can change from day to day, as can her medication needs. Finishing school on schedule was impossible, but Houston is working to get her GED.
Houston said that one doctor, early on, suggested her parents institutionalize her and forget her. She was well into her teens before her doctors found the medications that best helped her, and before she found the personal coping devices that stabilize her.
"I hope I can get people to realize mental illness is something that needs to be understood," Houston said.
"There are people out there who can't get treatment because they don't have money and they don't qualify for help. It really changes things if you have access to help for your illness. It makes all the difference."
Houston volunteers for the Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and she attends youth-in-transition meetings for young adults, which help teach life skills.
She has been to the state Capitol with her youth group to ask lawmakers for support in building a stronger, more accessible system for those seeking treatment.
"We understand the problems," Houston said, "and we want to help make a difference."
Mom Sheri Houston said she's proud of her daughter.
"She's great, a real trouper. One of the blessings we have had in all of this is that Camille was diagnosed young. That generally means it's a more severe case, but it means treatment can start earlier."
Undiagnosed teens and adults often seek comfort in alcohol or drugs, making diagnosis more difficult, Sheri Houston said. The fact that Camille was diagnosed as a child meant there were no drug abuse issues to cloud the real problem.
Sheri Houston said the mentally ill are hurt daily by the social stigma attached to their condition.
"The stigma is a huge barrier for families and for kids, in every system and in every aspect of daily living.
"I would like people to understand that mental illness is a physical illness like any other, like diabetes, except it happens to be of the brain rather than the liver and kidney.
"If you get diabetes, you don't hesitate to be on insulin and change your diet. Mental illness is highly treatable, and people who have it can function really well in society and be great contributors."
People often assume mental illness is caused by abuse or bad parenting, Sheri Houston said.
"In many mental illnesses, there's a genetic component. The wiring is slightly askew in your brain," she said.
"If you have cancer, it's not your fault. You didn't bring it on yourself.
"I wish the public would look at mental illness the same way. It would make such a difference if people could get treatment and talk freely about it."
The KUED special deals with the consequences of underfunding the mental health care system in Utah. An estimated 230,000 Utahns need mental health care they are not getting, and state and federal budget cuts could make the problem worse, according to the documentary.
People who don't get mental health care can end up breaking society's rules, so a large percentage end up in the penal system.
"It's easier for society to incarcerate mental illness than it is to treat and address mental illness," Matt Vachario, mental health program supervisor at Salt Lake County Jail, said in the documentary.
"I just think we don't have the patience from a societal perspective to adequately manage mental illness anymore. We're growing impatient with it. And the more impatient we become, the more likely we are to lock them up, to put them in a closet."
Camille Houston feels fortunate she has her art, for comfort and self-expression, and she has her voice, to speak out for positive change.
Her life is pretty full these days.
"There is no way out of mental illness," she said. "It isn't something that can be fixed. The thing is, you don't have to be perfect, you just have to be yourself.
"Find something you're good at, and it always makes a big difference. It will help you when you are feeling down. You can get better at it, and it will build you up.
"Put your emotions into something you're good at. I draw and paint. I also like to sew. It helps get my emotions out. It makes something beautiful out of my emotions."