Thursday, July 25, 2013

It’s OK2TALK about Mental Illness

By Sara Battista and Joni Agronin, NAMI Communications Interns

On Tuesday, July 23, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) launched their new “OK2TALK” campaign aimed at educating the public and encouraging youth to start a conversation about mental health. The campaign features a series of TV and radio PSAs to be used as a platform to spark a productive, nation-wide dialogue about the realities of mental illness and the availability of help and support.

The NAB initiated their OK2TALK campaign following the National Conference on Mental Health last month. NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith has a special connection to the cause given that his son took his own life in 2003 after living with depression for many years. At the launch, Gordon shared his personal story and his hopes that encouraging families to have honest conversations about mental illness will help prevent other families from experiencing the tragedy that he faced with the loss of his son.

The launch featured a multitude of speakers including senators and house representatives advocating for a bipartisan effort toward improving public accessibility to mental health care. NAMI Northern Virginia member Ellie Hoptman gave a face to the campaign when she shared her personal story of struggle and recovery. Her perspective as a teen growing up with bipolar disorder served as a call to action, proving that talking about mental illness can be a powerful step in the healing process. In her speech, Ellie recalls the pivotal moment at which she finally opened up to her peers and realized that she was not alone. “There were people out there like me and it made all the difference in the world.”

If you or a loved one is touched by mental illness, or if you simply need a safe and supportive place to talk, we encourage you to become a part of the conversation by visiting

More than one-fourth of young adults avoid talking about mental illness, but having a conversation could save a life.

You can watch the press conference in its entirety, here.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Keep the Conversation Going

By Marin Swesey, NAMI Multicultural Action Center Program Manager

Can you believe how fast July is blowing by? There is only about a week left of National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and it’s going strong! Some exciting things have happened and more are still planned. Here’s our mid-month update:

  • One hundred and seventy people have signed the NMMHAM pledge so far. Let’s see if we can get more in the first year of this attempt. If you haven't yet, sign it now:
  • Martha Silva, third from right, and others in New York.
  • Nearly 400 people registered for our celebration webinar, “Our Strength and Support: Celebrating National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month,” held on July 17 in partnership with the National Network to Eliminate Disparities. Larke Huang, Director of the SAMHSA Office of Behavioral Health Equity and Mike Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of NAMI, provided welcome remarks and presenters Ramey Ko of the White House Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and Dionne Monsanto from the SIWE Project gave inspiring presentations to encourage participants to learn more about available community resources and consider best practices in self-care. If you missed it, you can watch it here.
  • Last Thursday we cohosted a Twitter Chat in partnership with SAMHSA and the Office of Minority Health on multicultural mental health. Folks from many different organizations joined. See what all we were talking about by checking out the hashtag #MMHChat (and keep the conversation going with #minoritymentalhealth!).
  • Help us reach 1,000 likes on our Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month Facebook page! Get connected to people from around the country who are passionate about mental health in multicultural communities.

But celebrating NMMHAM doesn’t just happen on the web. Check out all the great events that have happened so far around the country. And if you’ve held an event or attended one that isn’t listed, make sure to let us know at

  • July 2: Martha Silva, leader of Latino outreach and programs for NAMI New Jersey en EspaƱol, hosted a resource table and welcomed individuals for a workshop about depression Mexican Consulate in New York (pictured right).
  • July 10: In partnership with the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management and the Denver American Indian Commission, NAMI Colorado board member, Elicia Goodsoldier, hosted a film screening and workshop event to discuss historic trauma among American Indians.
  • Attendees of the picnic hosted by NAMI Latino de Utah.
  • July 17: NAMI Latino de Utah, an outreach group of NAMI Utah, hosted a community-wide picnic which featured a flash mob dance and reading of the NMMHAM proclamation of Gov. Gary Herbert by Senator Luz Robles. See more event pictures on Facebook and hear the radio promotion of the event here.
  • July 17: NAMI New Jersey’s Chinese American Mental Health Outreach and South Asian Mental Health Awareness programs held a discussion of mental health medications for individuals from area Asian American communities to learn more about treating anxiety, depression and other mood and thought disorders with a focus on side effects and drug and herbal interactions and other safety concerns, focusing particularly on common treatments utilized among South Asian and Chinese communities.
  • July 19: NAMI Urban Greater Cincinnati Network on Mental Illness held a luncheon at the Cincinnati State Midwest Culinary Institute to honor the month and Bebe Moore Campbell by sharing her personal stories and advocacy for individuals living with serious mental illness.
  • July 19: The fifth annual Minority Mental Health Awareness Month Breakfast was held by NAMI Augusta (Ga.) in Evans, Ga. with the theme “Relationships Strengthen Teamwork”. Find more information, including speakers and special guests here.
  • July 20: NAMI Lexington's Multicultural Action Committee MAC DIVAS & DADIS celebrated by featuring NAMI’s Sharing Hope program with workshop, “As We Share Hope Surrounding Mental Health Recovery from Cultural Viewpoints,” at the Lexington Central Library.
  • July 26: NAMI Minnesota has organized a panel to be featured on a local R&B radio station at 6:00 p.m. to discuss mental health and criminal justice-related issues among African Americans.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Healing by Helping Others

By Bassey Ikpi

Bassey Ikpi

In December 2011, I launched a global non-profit organization called The Siwe Project. It was named for Siwe Monsanto, the 15 year-old daughter of a good friend. I’d known Siwe since she was 4 years old so I was aware of her ups and downs. However, it still came as a shock when in June of 2011, she took her own life. As a black woman, I understood the stigmas and shame that came with mental illness. I understand that all cultures have issues dealing with and understanding mental illness, but I also know that the global black community has specific ways of dealing with illness, in that, we rarely deal with it. Siwe was lucky to have an amazing mother who dedicated her life to helping her but many aren’t so fortunate. The Siwe Project was born out of a need to help people like Siwe have a place to begin the conversation and tell their own stories. My reasons for taking on this endeavor were also selfish; I needed a place to feel a sense of community as I managed my own illness. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder at the age of 27. I’d struggled for most of my life trying to understand who I was and why I couldn’t ever seem to get it together. I began to notice that there was something “different” when I was 8 years old.

I didn’t fully understand it at that age. I just knew that there was this uneasiness that followed me around. I just knew that I cried sometimes but wasn’t sure why. I just knew that I couldn’t sleep some nights. I’d get dizzy and lightheaded and my stomach would rage out of control. And then there was the sadness; that inexplicable melancholy that sat on my chest from time to time. I’d be fine and then out of nowhere the tears would start.

I was constantly heartbroken by the world. In the third grade, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. We were in Mrs. Zeroski’s class watching it as it happened. I remember the entire class burst into tears, even our teacher was openly weeping. I cried too but something else happened, something broke and I couldn’t drag myself out of the sadness. Days, weeks, months went by and I was still broken. I stayed up at night obsessed with how I could have stopped it; even wondering if I had caused it somehow. Was it that spelling bee that I fumbled? Was it the track meet I lost?

I didn’t know of anyone going through this but me. So on top of everything else, I was weird. I tried to mask it by being funny, smart, a great dancer, the kid everyone liked despite it all. People were always commenting on my “bubbly personality.” In high school, it was easier to keep at bay. I had figured out what “normal” was and emulated it to the best of my ability. Whenever the sadness came, I pushed it away. When the frantic rush of energy came, I stayed up all night reading my textbooks from cover to cover and writing. It helped my grades. And if my grades were good, then nobody suspected that I was falling apart.

And then college happened and every trick I had stopped working. When my peers were exploring their sexuality and freedoms, I was huddled in my dorm bed, a mess of trembling and tears, confused and distraught about everything and nothing. I still put on the smile and the laughs when I could face people. When I had to retreat, they all thought it was because I was focused and studying. That first semester of college, I returned home with a 0.0 grade point average. I was put on academic probation for the first time in my life. My parents were convinced that I was on drugs or suddenly promiscuous.

What they didn’t know was that since I was 8 years old, I never let myself see past the next 12 months. I was so afraid that if I planned for more, I’d have too much to lose. So I made no plans. I wasn’t building towards any future. I wasn’t sure I’d have one. When college became too much, I dropped out with no plan and no money and moved to New York City.  And once again, I was good for a little bit.

But the symptoms of my illness didn’t go away. There were bouts of hypomania. (Remember the first time you were on a Ferris wheel? Remember when you got to the very top and kind of just sat there for a little while, the entire world at your feet?  You felt like you could touch the sky. Your entire body was tingling with this amazing sensation of joy. You were giddy. Now imagine feeling that every day for a week or a month or a few months, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with no break. No "down." No rest. That’s hypomania.)

There were also bouts of depression, for which I was hospitalized twice. The first time was in 2004. I’d had a breakdown while on a national tour. I became quiet and withdrawn. I stopped eating and sleeping. In Chicago, our wardrobe lady found me in my dressing room, huddled underneath the sink weeping. I was sent home the next day. Before I left, our stage manager, Alice, gave me a list of doctors to call when I got back to Brooklyn. I remember how she hugged me and said, “If you don’t get help Bass, you’re going to die.” Her words settled into my bones the entire flight back to New York. Over the course of the next seven days, I received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I’d heard of bipolar. I’d seen the stories of “crazy people” running down the street naked or forgetting to feed their children, but I didn’t see myself in those people so I shrugged off the diagnosis. I took antidepressants and a mood stabilizer for exactly one month; I figured I’d be cured by then and allowed to go back on tour and resume my life and career. But, I was told I couldn’t return to the tour. I was a liability. I was too unstable to continue. What I heard was, “You’re broken. You can’t be fixed.”

It confirmed what I’d feared my entire life: there’s something wrong with me and soon everyone will know.

To say it’s frustrating is to minimize how paralyzing it can be. And then there’s the shame; you have to decide who to reveal your struggle with and when. If I meet someone I’m interested in, do I tell them that sometimes I shrink away or do I wait until it happens? Revealing too much too soon can end it before it begins; waiting too long results in confusing behavior that ends things as well. No matter how you play, someone isn’t going to understand.

Through it all, I’m currently managing my illness. Staying on meds has been a problem. I start feeling better and convince myself that I don’t need it or I can skip a day or two or 30. I’m most likely going to be on meds for the rest of my life. I have to be okay with that. I’m not often okay with it, but the alternatives are worse so despite how tedious and annoying it is to take the pills, I do it. People often tell me that without this illness, I wouldn’t be the writer or the personality that I am now. I’m not sure how true that is. I am who I am despite the illness not because of it. Just because I manage and have found a way to live with this, does not mean that I wouldn’t trade all the writing and creativity and “bubbly personality” for a brain that settles and mends itself like it’s supposed to.

Like so many physical diseases and disorders, getting it under control is the key. Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health. I wish people could understand that. I wish they could see that mental illness is not who I am. It doesn’t define me anymore than being short or having black hair does.

I’m often asked why I am so open about my challenges, why I put myself in positions to be judged. I’ve made sacrifices in order to be vocal and honest about where I am mentally. In my small way, I hope my transparency can help someone else come to terms with what they have.

It’s a constant fight but it’s a fight that I will always take on. If I want to stay alive, I have no choice. And I do want to stay alive.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Speaking Out for Minority Mental Health

By MaJose Carrasco, NAMI Multicultural Action Center Director

They say that “what we don’t know can’t hurt us.” I disagree. 

While mental health conditions were part of my family’s story, it took me finding NAMI to realize this. I still remember the first time someone at NAMI asked me if I had a family member with mental illness. I had just started working at NAMI. I responded that I did not have a family member but had a close friend living with severe depression. Months later, when someone else asked me the same question, my answer was quite different: yes, I have a loved one living with mental illness. You see, up until then I had not realized I was not only a friend but also a family member of someone with mental illness.

After learning more about the signs and symptoms of different conditions and hearing stories from people with mental illness and family members I started to notice that I had seeing and experienced some of the things I was hearing about. I started to recognize my uncle’s behavior in some of the NAMI materials I was reading. Suddenly I remembered that my uncle had something… something we did not talk much about. Up to this point, I had never fully realized that one of my uncles has a mental illness even though, at some point in my childhood, I had heard words such as schizophrenia mentioned in hushed tones. This started a process of discovery and healing.

Finding out about mental health, what it is, what it means and what to do about it should not be left to luck or to going through years of struggle. Unfortunately, lack of information and understanding about mental health conditions perpetuate the stigma attached to these illnesses and prevent communities across the country from talking about them and helping people understand that it is okay to have a mental illness.

This is particularly the case in multicultural communities where research shows that the levels of stigma associated to mental health conditions are much higher. In recognition of this fact, July was declared as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month in order to improve access to mental health care through increased awareness of mental health conditions among people from diverse backgrounds.

We have a month-long opportunity to spread the word and help communities across the country understand that mental health conditions are real and treatable. For those of us who are members of diverse communities, we have an opportunity to help our communities start a much needed conversation and dialogue around mental health.

If you are not a person of color or a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individual (LGBT) you may think you can stop reading this now since this does not apply to you. Though, think about it for a minute.  Think about your neighbors, your coworkers, your friends, people at your place of worship, the gym, school, etc. You can make a difference in their lives. I certainly wish someone would have shared with me about mental illness long before I found NAMI. This could have helped me and my family.

So, what can you do to help?
There are many opportunities to get involved. Below are six ideas to help you get started:  

  • Pledge to take action to increase awareness of mental illness and mental health promotion while embracing the diversity of our community.
  • Like us on Facebook and join the conversation. We will be giving away prizes throughout the month so make sure to check weekly with us.
  • Share your story. We have created tips to help you do it effectively.
  • Share with your networks the great materials we have created to celebrate the month.
  • Spread the word via social media by sharing your own or some of our posts or tweets.
  • Share videos on different perspectives of recovery. They beautifully convey a message of hope.

Editor’s Note: Some of this content previously appeared in Avanzamos, NAMI’s bilingual newsletter.