It is estimated that one in four Americans will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime. In Mississippi, more than 600,000 people have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Families of mentally ill people need support and understanding in order to optimize their quality of life and overcome the challenges of living with these medical conditions. The Mississippi Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, (NAMI MS) provides those services and helps the general public increase their understanding of how these conditions affect our lives.
NAMI opened its doors in 1979 as a grassroots effort to help individuals and families affected by mental illness. The organization is run by mental health consumers and their friends and families. NAMI MS has been around for more than two decades. Their programs include Family support groups and education programs, peer-to-peer programs and advocacy for mental health consumers. There are currently 6 affiliates on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Their services are offered for free to anyone who needs them. “This is a chronic illness that causes stress in families,” said Ann Jensen, Family and Provider Education Coordinator for NAMI MS. “We really try to give them tools to cope,” she said. “They often don’t have anyone to talk to. It’s not your ‘casserole’ kind of illness where friends and family bring casseroles and visit you when your relative is hospitalized. Ann said mental illness should be treated like any other illness. “The more educated network of support, the better the outcome,” she continued.
People living with mental illness do not have to suffer in silence, nor should they feel embarrassment or shame. Families often blame themselves for their loved one’s illness, and they shouldn’t. In 1999, the US Surgeon General produced the first ever comprehensive look at the causes of the stigma associated with mental illness. The medical health field has always separated mental health from physical health. The report calls that separation “a destructive split” that has caused disparities in access and availability of services for people with mental illness. To combat the stigma that prevent families from reaching out for help needs to be addressed by all health care practitioners, the report said. This is key to helping people learn how to cope with the illness and move forward, said Tonya Tate, Executive Director of NAMI MS. “We are quick to seek help for diabetes and hypertension, but not mental illness,” Tonya said.
One stereotype is that mentally ill individuals are violent and dangerous. Tonya said this is not true. “They are more likely to be victims,” she said, than to be perpetrators. “Certain behaviors attract attention and media, but we don’t see the day-to-day of living with mental illness.” Tonya said parents of children with behavioral problems should be asking, “Is my child bad, or do they have a mental illness?” Teachers should learn the warning signs that a child is in need of health care. Parents who learn about mental illness are better able to separate their child from the condition. Tonya recommended parents not allow people to push their beliefs about mental illness on them. “The Center for Disease Control reports that violent tendencies in mentally ill individuals are well below the average of the general population. Ann, Tonya, and Consumer Programs Coordinator Sandra Caron agree that that educating the public is essential to dispelling the myths surrounding the diseases of the mind, and to opening the doors for families to reach out and get the help they deserve to improve their lives.
“We give presentations [across the state of Mississippi] to educate the public about what it’s like to live with mental illness,” Sandra said. The peer-to-peer program provides relapse prevention techniques and advance care directives, such as making plans for the care of your home and affairs if you are hospitalized. Sandra said NAMI MS also offers “NAMI Connection” on the Gulf Coast. These are support group meetings led by mental health care consumers. “We’re the ones living with it,” Sandra said. “We are the best capable of offering support to others. It’s my life, my world,” she said. In Jackson County, the support groups meet at the Ocean Springs Library at 6:30 each Thursday evening and at Gautier Library on Friday evenings. In Harrison County, meetings are held at Gulfport Memorial Hospital on Thursdays at 6:30pm and 7pm at Garden Park Hospital. NAMI MS also offers seminars and presentations to schools, clubs and civic organizations.
NAMI MS is also reaching out to military veterans and families who are still dealing with the emotional tolls of recent disasters in our area. They have extended their services to the Vet center in Biloxi and to the VA Hospital. This month, NAMI MS is hosting a Family-to-Family Program at Garden Park Hospital on March 15th. The 12-week program is free. Caregivers and family members of mental health consumers will learn about some of the most common illnesses affected those who have been affected by recent disasters. Funded by BP and the MS Dept. of Mental Health, the topics to be discussed include Major Depression, PTSD, Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Schizoaffective Disorder. The classes will show ways for caregivers and family members to maintain their own well-being while caring for others. You can register for this course by contacting NAMI MS at 800-357-0388 or you can visit their website at http://www.nami.org/sites/NAMIMississippi.