Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Two Creative Messages About Mental Illness Premiering at Convention

by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director

Documentary filmmaker Dr. Delaney Ruston and Irish singer-songwriter Susan McKeown use their creativity to deliver a powerful message—that mental illness is a universal concern that touches each person uniquely. Ruston’s film about her father’s life, Unlisted, and McKeown’s album, Singing in the Dark, are important to the NAMI community because they spread awareness about conditions like schizophrenia and depression. They also remind us that creativity is required by anyone whose life is touched by mental illness.

For many years, Ruston and her father were estranged. After their reconciliation, she used the filmmaking process as one way to overcome their mutual sense of isolation and to see him differently. For both of them it was a journey. The film premieres on PBS this fall during Mental Illness Awareness Week and will have a special screening at the NAMI Convention this week.

When the Grammy Award-winning musician Susan McKeown began working on Singing in the Dark, an exploration of depression in all its facets, she found few resources for music and depression. “Growing up in Dublin I was conscious of how the Irish were outstanding in global arts and creativity, especially in terms of literature and music,” said McKeown. “But I was also conscious of a huge stigma around the area of mental health and things that people weren't comfortable talking about in their families.” McKeown will perform on Saturday, July 3 at the convention awards dinner and samples of her music are available online.

Both Ruston and McKeown will be at the NAMI Convention this week, but so will many people living with mental illness and their families. These convention guests will share their perspectives at lectures, participate in workshops and sing at open mic night. In each of their actions they will reveal themselves to be creative people, people who find a way over, around or through whatever challenges fall in their path. We look forward to sharing all of these vibrant individuals’ contributions to the NAMI community with our Virtual Convention coverage.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Labels, Choice and the Response to Stigma

by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director

The two smiling women are pictured with their arms around each other. Both are wearing t-shirts, each bearing a single word. Sounds like a pretty innocuous picture, doesn’t it? Add to the image that one of the women’s shirts says “bipolar,” and you have a photograph that causes strong reactions, different reactions, in members of our community.

NAMI has received many impassioned responses to the picture—which depicted actress Glenn Close wearing a “sister” shirt alongside her sister, wearing the shirt listing the bipolar illness she lives with. Whether you are for or against this tactic, Close’s organization, BringChange2Mind would probably count any reaction to their anti-stigma PSA as a success. Their intent is to create dialogue around mental illness by bringing the issue into the public eye. Close described her response to stigma in a Boston Globe interview as "Say it loud, say it again and again until it has lost its power over us. Make the unspeakable speakable."

This “talk therapy” approach is similar to the one advocated by another celebrity-run cause, No Kidding, Me Too. Started by actor Joey Pantoliano, who lives with depression, the organization seeks to address the isolation that can be caused by “the scarlet letter of mental illness.” Dedicated celebrities, especially those who are either living with a condition or have a family member who is affected can be powerful voices for change—who doesn’t remember the contribution that actor Michael J. Fox made to his cause when he chose to come forward as someone living with Parkinson’s Disease?

The key here is in the choice: Fox chose to publicly disclose his condition, just as Glenn Close’s sister chose to don a t-shirt reading “bipolar” and appear in photographs and a public service announcement. Nobody wants to be objectified or forced to “wear” a label that someone else has devised for them. The people in the BringChange2Mind video showed up at Grand Central Station wearing condition-specific shirts because they believed by getting these words right into the middle of society they are effectively taking the “scarlet” out of those letters.

Others have felt as though they or someone they love have been captured in that photo wearing a label someone else stuck around their neck—on a visceral level it feels like stigma to them, a lack of understanding comes from without. In reality, the way you choose to react to stigma—either by disclosing or not disclosing your condition—is personal, just as personal as the experience itself.

NAMI recognizes that stigma can and does cause a lot of distress for people in our community, but we also recognize that the fight against that stigma does not have a “one size fits all” solution. We welcome your responses to all our features because no matter how many different ways there are to get there, we all share a common goal: improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

FMAP: Not an Insider's Game, Call the Senate Now

by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director

These are dangerous times for children and adults with mental illness and their families.  The economic recession has already devastated services for persons of all ages with mental illnesses in communities across America.  Budget cuts continue threaten basic services and treatments.  Good programs and services that work to help people regain their lives are at risk.

This morning, as part of the overall jobs bill now pending in Congress, the U.S. Senate voted down a provision to extend each state's federal Medicaid match rate (known as FMAP) through June 2011.

Without this extension, many states will very likely cut funding for Medicaid, which is the most important source of funding of public mental health services.  Millions of Americans rely on this system for their care.  They are our co-workers, our neighbors and they are us.

Please help change the Senate's mind. Call your Senators now and ask them to vote to extend “FMAP.” As part of the jobs bill (H.R. 4213).  All Senate offices can be reached toll-free by calling 877-210-5351 or 877-442-6801 or through the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121.

You can also send emails from here. Ask them not to pull the rug out from under state budgets that have already been deeply cut, thereby hurting people who live with mental illness.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

People Helping People: the NAMI HelpLine

by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director

Here at NAMI, we strive to offer hope and help to individuals and families affected by mental illness each day.

A large variety of activities engage our efforts, from numerous advocacy initiatives, management of our many education programs, providing response to and shaping media stories, supporting our grassroots leaders and more. Now and for the next few weeks, we are especially busy preparing for our annual convention when we play host to thousands of grassroots NAMI members and others. They will join us in Washington, D.C., to learn, network and both give and receive inspiration for the important work they do as NAMI advocates, educators and citizens.

In partnership with the thousands of volunteers across the country, these and all of our activities are important as we strive to meet the NAMI mission. Among the many things we do here at NAMI, however, perhaps no single effort directly improves lives more than our NAMI HelpLine. The only national phone line of its kind, our HelpLine fields 80,000 requests each year. The need has grown along with our visibility, and we work every day to lend a hand those seeking help.

The phone calls, e-mails and letters come from all parts of the country, and the requests are varied. Last week, a young woman early in her recovery called discouraged because she was struggling to manage her illness. A father called looking for a support group for he and his wife; they were seeking answers from others who had a similar experience with their child who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. A Latina phoned, grateful to have a Spanish-speaking HelpLine associate to respond to her unique challenge as a caregiver. Thousands of people contact us each month in search of an understanding listener, information to assist their situation, or a lifesaving referral.

Who is answering these calls? Several staff and dozen of volunteers who are themselves in recovery or who are family members, people who know what the callers are experiencing and who want to give back to others. College students who want to learn first-hand about helping people with mental illness while preparing for future careers also volunteer, especially in the summer.

Our callers feel hope and gratitude for the responses they receive from the HelpLine, and we are proud to serve. This and everything we do at NAMI is motivated by our commitment to our grassroots leaders and our combined efforts at improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. It is this commitment and the stories we share, as well as those we receive, that make us unique.

Our stories bind us together. This blog post is the start of a new weekly series designed to provide insight and offer personal reflections about the concerns that affect people with mental illness. Please join me each week as together we explore a variety of issues through our shared human experience.