Monday, July 23, 2012

The Colorado Tragedy: What Families Are Asking

By Mike Fitzpatrick, NAMI Executive Director

Along with so many other Americans, NAMI members have been saddened by the tragedy in Aurora, Colo. in which 12 people were slain and 58 wounded in a theater at the premiere of a Batman movie.

NAMI does not speculate about mental illness or other factors that may be involved in such tragedies—or for that matter other kinds of news events. No one should diagnose through the news media.

Despite many public perceptions, we do know that generally the likelihood of violence from people with mental illness is low. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General has reported that “the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.” There are many reasons why violence occurs in our society, many of which have nothing or little to do with mental illness.

On the other hand, violence sometimes occurs. In some cases, it is because something has gone wrong with the mental health care system. At this time, that does not seem to be the case.

Recognizing that there is a problem is always the first step. Right now, public inquiry is focused on whether or not the behavior of the person responsible for the tragedy ever caused anyone or any institution to encourage or require him to be evaluated

The Surgeon General has acknowledged that the risk of violence among individuals with mental illness increases to some degree in the case of substance abuse or psychosis, a symptom which typically involves a “break with reality” through paranoia, hallucinations or delusions. Social withdrawal may precede such breaks. Early warning signs of psychosis, particularly in the year leading up to the break, may include:

  • Worrisome drop in academic or job performance
  • New trouble thinking clearly or concentrating
  • Suspiciousness or uneasiness with others
  • Decline in self-care or personal hygiene
  • Spending a lot more time alone than usual
  • Increased sensitivity to sights or sounds
  • Mistaking noises for voices
  • Unusual or overly intense new ideas
  • Strange new feelings or having no feelings at all

Young adults in their 20s are the most common age group to experience the first onset of psychosis. This is a stage of life that usually challenges young people to develop more independence, establish an identity, create intimate relationships and move away from home. Immediate family members, who usually are most aware of changes in behavior of a loved one, play a less central role at this time, particularly if a person has moved to another city or state, such as to attend college or graduate school.

Psychosis is treatable. Many people recover from a first episode of psychosis and never experience another one. The first step, however, is always recognizing onset of the illness and getting treatment.

Again, one cannot diagnose based on media reports. Risks of violence among people with mental illness are low overall. It is important not to perpetuate stigmatizing stereotypes. However, NAMI has been asked by the news media and many concerned families over the last few days about warning signs and what to do.

Regardless of whether or not violence is a concern and regardless of what the case may turn out to be in the Aurora tragedy, the first step is to recognize warning signs of illness and to reach out to a person who may be in trouble. Help them get help.

For more information about mental illness, treatment and recovery, please browse this website or call the NAMI HelpLine at (800) 950-NAMI (6264).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Good Life: Early Treatment and Eggplant Rollatini

By Christina Bruni

I've lived successfully in recovery from schizophrenia for 25 years: all of my adult life. I'm here to say that you can recover and go on to have a good life.

On Sept. 25, 1987, I had a breakdown that was sudden, total and irreversible. A NAMI survey report, Schizophrenia: Public Attitudes, Private Needs, has revealed an average delay of 8.5 years between onset of schizophrenia symptoms and first treatment. I received the right help within 24 hours of my breakdown: I got sick on a Friday afternoon and by that Saturday morning, my mother drove me to the hospital.

On the ward, I was given an antipsychotic medication, stayed for three weeks, and was released. My mother's courageous act—to get me the help I needed, no matter how it looked—made all the difference. I recovered because of my mother, Mary Ann Bruni.

Early intervention is the key to success. My story is hopeful and inspiring most of all to people diagnosed with mental illnesses. It shows that you don't have to go through endless hell and heartache before you get better. Yet it is also important that members of the public understand the need for quick action when a loved one develops schizophrenia.

I'm 47 years old now, on the cusp of mid-life, and I've learned some things in recovery: take your medication every day as prescribed and talk with your psychiatrist honestly about what's going on. The one and only three-month drug holiday I went on caused me to relapse.

Do the things you love, every day or as often as you can. At 35, I obtained a Masters in Library and Information Science (M.S.) and have worked 12 years as a public service librarian. I credit working at this job I love with enabling me to recover as fully as I have.

There is always hope, for you if you have a mental illness or for your loved one if he or she has a diagnosis.

I'll end by telling you that your life and your recovery can get better with age. At mid-life, I've suddenly become a cook: I buy cookbooks, shop at the local Greenmarkets and try my hand at recipes.

Tonight I'm cooking eggplant rollatini. Care to join me?

Christina Bruni is a columnist for SZ magazine and blogs for Health Central's schizophrenia community.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

From Psychosis to Functionality with NAMI's Help

By Jacquese Armstrong, NAMI New Jersey

Jacquese Armstrong, fourth from left, of NAMI New Jersey.

I found NAMI New Jersey (NJ) through a self-help clearing house index. I was looking for a non-profit to volunteer with, as was my way when I was very ill and could not work. I was new in the area and had never heard of NAMI, but I figured if I was going to help a non-profit organization, I should help the one who helps people like me.

So, I called. Right away I was invited to come to the office and talk. And so began our seven year relationship. I have stayed even while working because the stigma free environment is welcoming. For me, it is a good fit.

I have been dealing with schizoaffective disorder for about 30 years. Up until five years ago, I existed in a state of psychosis and suicidal ideation. It was in this condition that I landed on NAMI’s doorstep.

Don’t get me wrong, I had learned to mask my symptoms very well on the outside—25 years will do that for you. I was still very afraid of people. I had isolated myself through the course of my illness except for work when I could tolerate it, but the whole environment was welcoming.

I started out as a volunteer in the office doing miscellaneous duties. I volunteered half a day every week. This responsibility helped in my attempt to rebuild my self-esteem. I had begun the in-and-out of the hospital cycle again, but I continued to volunteer when I wasn’t in the hospital.

After about a year, the coordinator of AACT-NOW asked if I would join the advisory group. AACT-NOW is the African American mental health outreach program of NAMI NJ. I was shocked and honored that someone would value my input.

At first, I felt inferior because I was the only consumer in the group, on disability and not working at the time. But, everyone treated me with warmth and respect and I soon forgot those feelings.

After about a year, there was a documentary project coming to fruition which would showcase people of different cultures and their stories and concerns about living with a mental illness. They were looking for consumers of different cultures to volunteer. I volunteered as an African American consumer because I wanted to help humanize the face of mental illness for people in my community and everywhere else.

I had a poem featured in the documentary, which was eventually named for my poem (Documenting Our Presence: A Multicultural Experiences of Mental Illness).

It was a courageous move on my part to undertake this project, but I hadn’t thought it through. After the film came debuted, I realized I was immortalized in that stage of my recovery on film. Now, five years later, I get choked up when I see it, because I remember the intense pain and depression I felt at that time, that I no longer feel now.

After the film was debuted and started to circulate, I realized that I was “outed” anyway, so I decided to volunteer as a NAMI In Our Own Voice presenter. This program sends consumers into the community to educate audiences on mental illness by telling their personal stories. I feel this is a very important tool for helping to eradicate stigma. So, I joined this program in addition to my other responsibilities as a volunteer at NAMI NJ.

The next year I trained to be a facilitator for the consumer run support group NAMI Connection.

In the years following, I did appearances with the film, participated in panels at NAMI NJ state conference, the AACT-NOW conference, did a few poetry readings at NAMI NJ functions, and two book signings for my poetry chapbook in addition to the responsibilities mentioned before.

I then decided that I would pursue a career in mental health as a peer support specialist. I took classes and managed to get a position at a major hospital in Central New Jersey. The main selling point for my being hired was my experience with NAMI NJ. Because of my involvement, peer classes and B.A., my resume was almost impeccable for the position. The “holes” in my resume were not closely scrutinized. One of the main requirements is that you be in mental health recovery yourself.

Over these years, with NAMI NJ’s help, I have built up my self-esteem to the point that I am now building the foundation for a motivational/inspirational speaking career. Recently, I spoke at Tougaloo College’s Mental Health Week in Tougaloo, Miss. This past May I ran a workshop at the Intensive Case Manager Services (ICMS) Conference given by New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addictions Agencies (NJAMHAA).

When I first stepped into NAMI NJ, I never envisioned myself handling, accomplishing and enjoying the many responsibilities I have undertaken as a volunteer on behalf of the organization. I perceive these to be the things that put NAMI and NAMI NJ over the top for volunteering consumers:

  1. The stigma free zone located wherever NAMI is
  2. NAMI’s avid support of volunteering consumers
  3. The office staff’s non-judgmental, encouraging attitudes

In the last seven years God, my family, my medical team and NAMI New Jersey have been instrumental forces in my recovery.

I now know that no matter where I may move, I will seek out a NAMI office and volunteer doing something. I owe so much for NAMI New Jersey's continued support through my recovery process.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

At the Intersection of Racism and Stigma

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Join the celebration and spread the word. Mental health recovery is a possibility for people of diverse backgrounds. To learn more about the Month and get ideas of how to celebrate it visit: Jessica Gimeno has partnered with NAMI to help us celebrate the month and target teens and 20-somethings. We are happy to share her story.

By Jessica Gimeno

My name is Jessica Lynn Gimeno and I am from Des Plaines, Ill. I come from a large Filipino family where I’m blessed with an endless parade of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. A typical gathering for Easter, someone’s birthday or “just-because” means that at least thirty of us are present.  

While I had a happy childhood, it was not without its hardships that came from racist experiences and an occasional “darkness” I could not put into words. When I was 5, I had a kindergarten teacher who asked the minority students to perform menial tasks like fetching her slippers. As the only student who would not comply, that woman hated me. In academics, my parents instilled in me a Trojan work ethic. My mom told me I had to work twice as hard as my friends to be taken seriously because of the color of my skin.  

As a child, I faced dark moments when I questioned the meaning of everything in life. They were like flashes of grey in an otherwise cotton candy childhood. As I got older, moments of emptiness stretched into hours and in my teen years, I would feel sad for weeks at a time. And then I’d feel great for months until I inevitably felt bad again. I worked incredibly hard when I felt fine to compensate for times when I was too depressed to concentrate. 

When I was 18, a friend with bipolar disorder died by suicide. This prompted me to research the illness and I realized I had it too. I saw a doctor and got a second opinion, which all confirmed that I did indeed have bipolar disorder. Getting a diagnosis finally brought freedom from years of sleepless nights and crying spells!

For 10 years, I have been committed to medication and therapy. This, prayer and support from family and friends are responsible for my success. Despite fighting bipolar disorder and polycystic ovarian syndrome, I graduated cum laude from Northwestern University with two majors. As a student, I co-founded a depression support network and spoke to hundreds of students about getting help. I also found 30 students psychiatric help and assisted them in finishing school. Sometimes I meet people who have a low opinion of people with mental illnesses, but their prejudice just motivates me to be a better advocate.

In 2008, when I was 24 years old, I was diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular autoimmune disease called myasthenia gravis. I was given a 50-50 shot of living. Since I already beat depression, I knew I could fight this beast too. Today, I wake up in pain every morning because I have three physical illnesses. But every day I put on my “Rocky” boxing gloves and pray for strength.

I work for a wonderful nonprofit, The Balanced Mind Foundation, which connects families whose children have mood disorders with mental health resources. I host Flipswitch, a weekly podcast & blog that helps teens & 20-somethings understand depression and bipolar disorder. Last year, in honor of National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month I did a series of interviews with people of different cultures called the “Minorities & Mental Health Series.” In recognition of my work, this year I won second prize in the National Council’s 2012 Awards of Excellence.

If you’re a minority facing mental health stigma, here’s what I’ve learned: At the intersection of racism and stigma, there lies a funny thing called hope.