Friday, August 27, 2010

It’s Never Too Late—or Too Early—to Make a Difference

by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director

Wow, the summer has flown.

It’s not quite Labor Day, but college students are back at school and a new round of NAMIWalks is getting advance news coverage in local communities. The next few weeks traditionally launch grassroots activities that will continue throughout the fall and into early next year.

It’s not too late to plan and get organized.

It’s also not too early.

One person, four people or any small community organization can make a difference.

For this fall, NAMI has provided a special tool kit for Mental Illness Awareness Week, Oct. 2-9, including an “idea book” to help prepare one or more events for local public education. Another tool kit has been prepared to use over the next two months leading up to Election Day, Nov.2. Both kits can be combined for MIAW activities.

Beginning in late September, PBS stations in some communities will begin airing the documentary Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia. NAMI members can also sponsor screenings of the film on their own—at any time. Thanks to the producer, Delaney Ruston, M.D., NAMI members are allowed to order the home use version of Unlisted for $19.95 with copyright permission to use it for any public event, including conferences and fundraisers. The offer waives the regular institutional and educational charge of $75.00 and $135.00.

Soon after the election, Veterans’ Day will arrive. Each of these events or dates is an opportunity around which education about mental illness can be organized. Taken together, they provide a calendar and rhythm for planning. One event reinforces in building momentum and getting our voices heard.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Local Mental Health Services and Supports are Key to Gulf Coast Recovery

 by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director

BP this week announced that it will provide $52 million to federal and state health organizations to fund behavioral health support and outreach programs across the Gulf Coast region.

In a July letter to BP, NAMI blasted the oil company for ignoring appeals by Louisiana to fund mental health services in communities directly affected by the Deep Horizon oil spill. This month we also challenged Kenneth Feinberg, the independent claims administrator for the $20 billion relief fund created by BP, to cover mental health needs resulting from the spill.

With this down payment, BP has acknowledged the deep and profound impact of the oil spill on the already fragile mental health care systems of Gulf Coast states--and that people need local support.

Whenever there is a disaster, it affects everyone in the community. People living with existing mental illnesses, those with low incomes and children are among the most vulnerable.

People dependent on the Gulf Coast region for their livelihoods will likely be adversely affected by the oil spill for years to come, but with adequate resources, there is hope.

NAMI is available in these communities to offer education and support. Our affiliate leaders and members live and work in the Gulf Coast area. They understand the variety of ways life has been disrupted and are equipped to help others affected by mental illness.

NAMI has created a website to help support Gulf Coast residents affected by the spill. Visit for national, state and local support for information on everything from employment to mental health care.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it’s also important to remember that long before the oil spill, these storms devastated the mental health care systems in Louisiana and Mississippi.

According to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, New Orleans Five Years After The Storm: A New Disaster Amid Recovery, while the majority of New Orleans residents (59%) feel that they city has not full recovered from the Hurricane Katrina, nearly 50 percent of residents also expect that the Gulf Coast oil spill will cause more damage than the 2005 hurricane.

Across the Gulf Coast, depression, suicide attempts, family violence, substance abuse and other mental health problems are already on the rise. Treatment works-- if people can get it. However, in many communities, it may be difficult or impossible to find a local mental health provider.

How will people get the help they need? We cannot afford to ignore this question. These mental health systems need continued investment to meet the increasing needs of their communities.

We do not know what the long-term effects of the oil spill will be, but we can learn from the Exxon-Valdez spill. A study conducted one-year following the spill suggested that the “oil spill’s impact on the psychosocial environment was as significant as its impact on the physical environment.”  The study noted an increased prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressive symptoms in Alaska communities affected by the spill.

Families were torn apart, bank accounts were wiped out and suicides spiked. Nobody wants to repeat this history.

Everyone can be alert to warning signs related to mental health problems, such as insomnia, dizziness, mood swings, increased use of drugs or alcohol and headaches or stomach problems. If you experience these symptoms, or recognize them in a loved one, don’t dismiss them. Seek help.

At NAMI, we know that the road to recovery is rarely smooth, but the support of others who understand your losses, your frustrations, but also your aspirations for the future, can make all the difference.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mental Illness Among a Hidden Population

by Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director

What would you say if you heard about people living with severe mental illness being exposed to:
  • A complicated legal system
  • Charges without a lawyer
  • Detention for long periods of time and
  • Inappropriate or nonexistent psychiatric care?
These conditions are common for immigrants living with mental illness who have entered the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention system. Does that change your reaction? Immigration is a divisive issue these days. NAMI’s area of expertise is not whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country. Our question is whether a system that has a poor track record of dealing with people living with mental illness should be reformed.

The Washington Post reported that 15 percent of the total immigrant population in detention lives with a mental illness—an estimated 57,000 in 2008. Detainees with no family member or friends are appointed an ICE representative to act as their court “custodian”—“a blatant conflict of interest.”

While the ICE’s own statutes require certain standards of treatment for detainees living with mental illness, the reality usually fails to live up to those standards. Two reports, Justice for Immigration’s Hidden Population by Texas Appleseed, and Deportation by Default from Human Rights Watch, detail the conditions to which these most vulnerable of detainees are often subjected.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rules:
The reality: Detainees living with mental illness are often kept in detention for extended periods of time pending a decision. Long stays tend to exacerbate psychiatric symptoms such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.
The reality: Many people do not receive this evaluation because the pattern of frequent transfers means they do not stay in one place for 14 days. Sometimes these screenings do not catch even cases of profound mental illness. Some of these problems may be due to the scarcity of mental health screening materials in languages other than English. (Appleseed, 25)
The reality: Many people are not given the appropriate medication if they are offered treatment at all. As of September 2009, there were only three psychiatrists for 5000 detainees in Texas (Appleseed, 28). Insufficient and poorly trained staff members use restraint and seclusion more frequently than recommended, sometimes for long periods of time.

It costs seven times as much to incarcerate someone with mental illness,” according to Senator Russell Feingold, yet current detention practice opts for the more expensive, less humane alternative rather than keeping people living with mental illness in the community while their fates are being decided.

While there is no simple solution to the country’s immigration problem, the tens of thousands of people living with mental illness in the limbo of our country’s detention centers might have more similarities to those of us on the outside than we realize.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

NAMI Visits the White House for Americans with Disabilities Act Anniversary

By Glenn Koons, NAMI Pennsylvania

Last week I joined Mike Fitzpatrick, NAMI’s executive director, Keris Myrick and Mike Weaver, NAMI national board members, and John Coon, NAMI consumer council representative, at the White House to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Glenn Koons and actress Marlee Matlin
at the White House

The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, including those living with mental illness, in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications and governmental activities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a huge step in the civil rights movement and consumer advocacy! Although it has taken the past 20 years for some places to come "up to speed" on the regulations and amendments included in the ADA, that is happening all over the United States.

I started my consumer advocacy and doing presentations after being trained in the Social Security Work Incentives, i.e. PASS program, Ticket to Work. I spread the word about these things, which no one really knew much about, even though they are included in the Red Book that the Social Security Administration puts out every year. If I had known about these things earlier and/or the law was enacted earlier, it would have saved me about 10 years of depression and not knowing what I was going to do with myself and my future!

To start our day, Keris and I travelled to Statuary Hall in the Capitol via the “tram car,” which is usually just for members of Congress and office staff. No pictures allowed there!

Following an anniversary reception hosted by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, we went to the House Gallery to hear live proceedings. I was able to see Patrick Kennedy, who was recently honored with NAMI’s Distinguished Service Award, speaking on the floor. I tried to get his attention—but I was cautioned and told to settle down!

Our next stop was the White House.

Before the ADA celebration began, we had an opportunity to speak with others from the disability community and enjoyed a performance by the Marine Corps band before other entertainers took the stage.

Marlee Matlin, an Academy award-winning actress, shared a personal poetry reading in sign language with a spoken word interpreter. Nathaniel Ayers, the street musician living with schizophrenia who inspired The Soloist book and film, played the violin and trumpet for the audience. Patti LaBelle, who has diabetes, belted out several tunes and closed with a personal rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

President Obama followed with an inspiring speech and signed an executive order which will make the federal government the model employer for persons with disabilities! You can watch video from the celebration here.

After his signing, he greeted those in the front, so I did not get a chance to meet him personally, but we were pretty close.

Afterwards, we stayed for a bit to do some more networking and I got to meet Marlee Matlin! I had met Nathaniel last year at the NAMI national conference in San Francisco and I have met Patti LaBelle several times in her hometown of Philadelphia.

All in all, this was a great event and I was proud and honored to be representing NAMI!