According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults will experience mental illness in a given year. More than half will not receive mental health services.
In addition, stigma associated with mental illness prevents people from talking about it, reaching out and finding help.
That’s why the Tyler chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, is hosting “Stamp Out Stigma” on Saturday. It’s a health fair charged with educating the community about mental illness and how to find resources for those who suffer.
Mental health advocates say stigma comes from not knowing and not knowing exacerbates the problem.
“If you’re having a heart attack, they want everybody to know how to help your heart,” said Carolyn Harvey, Ph.D., program manager of UT Health Northeast’s Behavioral Health Integration Project. “Well, 25 percent of people have a mental health condition. Don’t we want to know how to respond and help them, too?”
Dr. Harvey has worked with NAMI, physicians and other community members to bring awareness about integrating mental health services and effective communication techniques within doctors’ offices and other providers.
The May 3 conference is bringing every sect of the community to the table, including the religious community.
The Rev. Jack Voss, a chaplain at UT Health Northeast, is leading discussions at the meeting and is encouraging church leaders to learn more about mental illness.
“When we talk about mental illness, oftentimes the church has been a bit reluctant to approach that …” Voss said. “A lot of that hesitation is not because we don’t care or we’re not sympathetic. We’re concerned. A lot of it is not knowing how to approach someone with a mental illness. Out of not knowing, we are more reserved than we probably should be.”
LOVE FOR DAVID
Roy Lee and his wife, Carole, have coped with the mental illness of a loved one for 25 years. Their 48-year-old son, David, has been living with schizophrenia.
“He hears voices,” said Lee, who is a former Tyler chapter president of NAMI. “The voices are telling him to do things that are not right.”
His son recently was admitted to Vernon State Hospital for extended care, following a confrontation with a neighbor, which involved a sword. He felt the neighbor was going to harm him.
He has since been charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. This is David Lee’s first experience in the criminal system. He spent a week in jail before going to East Texas Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Center and then on to the state facility.
Symptoms appeared after David Lee enlisted in the military. He was medically discharged. He’s been living with near his parents in a trailer on their property.
When he’s released from the hospital, his parents want to find a group home so he can receive care.
Like many aging parents, it’s become too difficult to handle.
“It puts pressure on a marriage,” said Roy Lee, who is 80. “It’s something every day you have to deal with.
“It gets harder and harder as we get older and older.”
The Lees always have felt stigma, mostly from family members because they don’t understand the illness. Lee noted that with news of mass shootings and other crimes, the spotlight has unfairly been on people with a mental illness.
In fact, mental health advocates cites studies that show the majority of people with mental illness are not violent.
“The stigma that’s on mental illness for murders and other things that have occurred, people are getting scared and fearful of persons with mental illness,” Lee said. “But that may again be a positive thing for us because it makes people aware of what we need to do for the mentally ill.”
Mildred Witte also has experienced stigma among friends. Her adult son, Nathan, has been coping with mental illness. It prompted her to get involved with NAMI and today, she teaches Family-to-Family, a program that helps loved ones understand and cope with the disease. Letting friends know her son has a mental illness led to awkward reactions.
“It wasn’t like if you said somebody has cancer,” Mrs. Witte said. “It was more or less, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I asked.’”
Early on, Mrs. Witte found solace in NAMI.
“I found out it’s an educational group,” she said. “You can learn what’s going on, and you can learn what services there are that are available. You can also seek people who’ve been through the same thing.”
Ms. Harvey said everyone should be knowledgeable about mental illness, even if it doesn’t impact them directly.
“Even if you don’t know how to help somebody with a mental illness, if you don’t know where all the resources are, if you just show somebody that you care about them, that’s 100 percent right there,” she said. “If you care about them, you will help them find the resources. But if you just ignore it and you don’t care, we perpetuate our problem and it gets worst.”