Mental Health Awareness Month has come and gone, but violent events of the past few weeks have left many of us assessing mental health resources in our own communities. In Murray, a chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, is dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with mental illness and their families, through support, education, and advocacy
With the leadership of Brenda Benson, president of the local chapter, the group meets once a month on the third Thursday. Participants are not just from Calloway County. In addition to locals, others travel from Cadiz and Paris Tenn., to share their stories and gather helpful information.
“We’re a welcoming group,” Brenda Benson said.
People seek out NAMI for a range of reasons, according to Benson.
“Sometimes it is just helpful to realize you are not the only one dealing with the situation. There are a lot of us. In my own case,” she explained, “I went to a meeting when I realized I couldn’t deal with this on my own.”
She has belonged to NAMI for more than ten years and her involvment has led to advocacy efforts on behalf of those with mental illness, their families, and communities.
“My son has schizophrenia,” she said. “NAMI is a great support for our family. It strives to raise awareness and serve as a support group. Bipolar, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, depression and anxiety disorders are the most common issues.”
According to the official NAMI website, the group recognizes a variety of conditions, including those mentioned by Benson and more, including PTSD, bipolar disorder, ADHD, OCD, eating disorders, addiction, and suicide.
When I first contacted Mrs. Benson for an interview, the suicide of Wynona Judd had just been reported. In relation to NAMI’s work, Benson stressed the importance of acquiring valuable insights even in the midst of tragedy.
“Mental illness can strike any gender, any age, any family,” she said.
Indeed, national statistics reinforce the need for organizations like NAMI.
• 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year
• 1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year
• 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
• 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24
The road to these realizations has been the less-traveled one, according to Sheila Schuster, a licensed psychologist and executive director of the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition. When she started practicing in her field in 1975, she began by talking to PTA groups about mental health.
“Parents were eager to learn,” she said, “and pediatricians didn’t have time to talk.”
Besides outreach to parents and schools, the need for advocacy to change legislation at state and national levels became another priority. On April 21st, 2000, Kentucky Governor Paul E. Patten signed HB268 into law, requiring health insurance plans that provide any coverage of mental illnesses to provide full parity with other illnesses, making Kentucky the 30th state in the nation to enact a law that restricts the imposition of annual or lifetime dollar limits on mental health benefits that are less than limits imposed on medical/surgical benefits.
That milestone is just one of many. Dr. Schuster described the path to parity as a “David and Goliath” struggle, with ongoing efforts to improve current laws and raise awareness of the need to make new ones that cover mental health issues.
“Kentucky was first in the United States to establish a statewide network of mental health centers, but now we are at the bottom,” she explained. “We are continuously doing advocacy.”
In the past two years, the impact of COVID-19 has been felt by individuals of all ages in various ways. Disruption of so many routines at work and home, in schools and communities, have caused anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Racial, religious, and ethnic injustice, political unrest, and responses by government and law enforcement have added to the complicated mix. In addition, gun violence is on the rise, with more than 200 mass shootings so far in 2022.
According to Dr. Schuster, “We under-estimate the impact. The pandemic caused foreboding, fear of the unknown, a sense of things out of control. All those factors come together to create tremendous anxiety.”
While dealing with their own mental health issues, parents are handling situations with children of all ages. “If we don’t talk about it, if we don’t put words on things, anxiety results,” Dr. Schuster explained. “We tend to say, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ but that is the opposite of what we need to hear.”
Inspiring fear in people of all ages, school shootings cannot be ignored. They are not going away and must be discussed.
“Sit on your own anxiety and listen,” Schuster advises. “Be willing to hear what your kids are saying. Their feelings are legitimate. Keep talking, asking, ‘What do you want to know? How do you feel?’ Your information is better than what kids get from social media.”
Murray State University’s Director of University Counselling Services, Dr. Angie Trzepacz, has seen the same fears and anxiety among college students, faculty, and staff. “The lack of control, inability to plan, uncertainty. They don’t know what to expect.”
On the other hand, “There is not as much stigma about seeking mental health support,” she said. “More people are getting help, but we’re not provided with more resources to give help.”
When COVID was at its height, many organizations resorted to online rather than live meetings, making it easier to participate from afar. In Murray, NAMI’s June meeting will be in person, with a Zoom option, providing access to those seeking information and support. The meeting place in June has been changed to the Murray-Calloway County Hospital Wellness Center, 716 Poplar Street. For more information, contact [email protected] or 270-748-6133.