by Lynne Meyer
(Plain Press, May 2012) Catherine Zeta-Jones. Abraham Lincoln. Ludwig van Beethoven. Winston Churchill. Ernest Hemingway. Isaac Newton. Michelangelo. Terry Bradshaw. Mike Wallace. Buzz Aldrin. David Letterman.
Actress, president, composer, political leader, writer, scientist, artist, sports star, news reporter, astronaut and talk show host. These individuals are from all walks of life. They all have one thing in common, however — mental illness.
The fact is, one adult in four — approximately 58 million Americans — experiences some kind of mental disorder in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Given this statistic, chances are pretty good that you know a loved one, a friend or a colleague with a mental illness — be it depression, bipolar, schizophrenia or an anxiety disorder.
Fortunately for Greater Clevelanders and their families and friends touched by mental illness, there’s help available from the Greater Cleveland Chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to helping improve the lives of millions of Americans affected by mental illness. The non-profit organization was founded in 1979 and has affiliates in every state and more than 1,200 local communities across the country. NAMI has a vital mission of advocacy, research, support and education.
The Greater Cleveland chapter of NAMI (NAMI GC) is located in the heart of Ohio City – on the sixth floor of the United Office Building, right at the corner of West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue. NAMI GC has a staff of four full-time and six-part time employees. With the assistance of volunteers who receive services and also family members, NAMI GC provides information, referrals, education programs and 28 free support groups throughout the Greater Cleveland area. A board of trustees and a medical advisory board help guide the chapter.
According to Michael Baskin, executive director of NAMI GC, “Mental illness affects everyone in one way, shape or another, whether someone has a mental illness himself or herself, or it’s a family member, friend or colleague.”
NAMI GC offers three key programs to help those touched by mental illness. The Family-to-Family education program provides information about the biology of the brain and family coping skills. The NAMI Basics program is for parents and caregivers of a child or adolescent living with mental illness. The third one, called Peer-to-Peer, is a 10-week experiential education program, two hours a week, for individuals with serious mental illness who are interested in establishing and maintaining wellness.
Mental health myths
The stigma about mental illness is a major problem, according to Baskin, and there are a number of myths that NAMI of Greater Cleveland works to dispel. “The most prevalent myth is that mental illness is the result of a weakness of character. In reality, it’s a product of the interaction of biology, psychology and social factors.”
People also presume that individuals with mental illness are violent and unpredictable. “In reality,” he explains, “they’re no more violent than anyone else. In fact, they’re more likely to be victims of crime than to be perpetuating them.”
Another myth about mental illness is that people can’t get better from it. “It’s important to note that mental disorders are illnesses and are treatable,” Baskin notes. “Some disorders are manageable with medication and behavioral therapy; others require more intense treatment. Most people get better, and many can fully recover.”
Mission to combat stigma
NAMI GC uses awareness and education to combat mental health myths. “Our community education program includes our walk-a-thon each September, which is the largest mental health walk-a-thon in the state,” Baskin says. “About 2,000 people walk, and $150,000 is raised. There’s also a car wash and a music event attached to the walk.” NAMI GC’s annual meeting each April is another fundraiser for the organization. “These and other funding sources enable us to provide education programs to help combat the stigma of mental illness,” he states.
Another program, called In Our Voice, helps raise awareness and provide accurate information about mental illness. “The individuals who participate in this program first attend one of our support groups and then volunteer in some capacity. They may then become willing to tell people about their experience with mental illness,” Baskin explains. Dianna Bell is one such volunteer.
Dianna Bell, 31, was diagnosed with depression when she was about 21 and then later diagnosed in 2007 with bipolar. “I’ve dealt with the extremes of severe depression as well as mania,” she explains. “I began using NAMI’s services in 2008 by attending a support group.”
Bell has been stable since 2009. “I wanted to find a way to give back to the organization that had helped me so much and also give back to the community,” she recalls. “By joining the In Our Voice program, I share my story with patients in the psychiatric areas of hospitals and help give them hope.”
Bell, who was also featured in a local women’s publication and did an interview on a local TV station in late 2011, had some fears about how going public and speaking out would affect her professionally. However, she says she hasn’t experienced any negatives. She has been in management with a local financial institution in Ohio City for the past five years. “They’ve always stood behind me, even when I was really ill,” she states. Bell also serves as the Board Treasurer for NAMI GC.
Bell mentions two more mental health myths – that people with mental illness can’t be productive members of society and also that people should be able to “just get over it.” “Mental illness isn’t a character flaw,” she states. “It’s an illness like any other physical illness and needs treatment.” She encourages individuals struggling with mental illness to seek out support services like those offered through NAMI GC.
Baskin and Bell agree that others can help combat the stigma surrounding mental illness by talking about it, educating themselves and not judging someone who has a mental illness.
For more information and referrals, call 216-875-7776 or go to NAMI’s website at http://www.namigreatercleveland.org