Stepping to stigma
Mental-health advocates take to the streets to spread awareness
“I lost a friend to suicide in high school,” explained Ariel Ellis of the impetus to lace up her walking shoes last Saturday morning (April 27). “Ever since I’ve wanted to help, to learn more about mental illness and help people understand, and help people get safe access to treatment.
“I just want to do whatever I can.”
For Ellis and many others, helping means walking. Every year, regional chapters of the National Alliance for Mental Illness stage NAMI Walks throughout the United States to spread awareness about mental-health issues and help combat the stigma that surrounds them. As many of those afflicted and their families suffer privately and silently—the organization estimates one in four, or 60 million, Americans are directly affected by mental illness—the walks are a rare opportunity for public advocacy.
To this end, NAMI Butte County’s Walk last weekend was a loud, celebratory public event. A DJ spun records, drummers drummed, and about 300 people—including 250 registered walkers, mental-health advocates and onlookers—gathered in Downtown Chico City Plaza at 9 a.m.
The registrants were organized into 13 teams, many wearing matching T-shirts and representing various advocacy groups. Ellis and her friends represented a group of Chico State University psychology students called Active Minds Chico State. They wore shirts bearing a quotation from President Bill Clinton reflecting the view of many participants: “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.”
Other teams included large groups from the CSU Child Development Students Association and The Live Spot, which runs youth centers in Oroville and Gridley.
The beginning of the walk was also a resource fair featuring tables from Sensible Cyclery, Caminar, Enloe Behavioral health and other organizations. NAMI volunteers sold doughnuts and coffee (donated by Krispy Kreme and Starbucks) and provided free bottled water to walkers.
This year’s scheduled NAMI Walk grand marshal was IBF and WBC champion boxer (and Chico local) Ava Knight, but she was unable to attend because she is preparing for a May 11 bout in Mexico. In her stead, former City Councilman Andy Holcombe gave a speech before the walk began at 10 a.m.
Holcombe said many people are affected by mental illness, and told a story about a friend whose adolescent suffers from schizophrenia. He also took the opportunity to relate NAMI’s mission to contemporary local politics, mentioning the possible city adoption of a sit/lie ordinance.
“I want to mention the importance of us gathering in City Plaza,” he told the assembled crowd. “There’s a move in our community to exclude people from the plaza. A lot of those people are homeless people, and many suffer from mental illness.
“The [sit/lie ordinance] would basically criminalize the behavior of sitting in a public place. The criminalization of mental illness or the criminalization of people who act differently because of mental illness is a real serious challenge to our community and to any community.
“We need to be inclusive. This is a medical problem and a community problem, it is not a criminal-law problem, and we need to treat it that way. We have to be inclusive and understanding.”
After Holcombe’s address, the walkers embarked north along Main Street, turning on Second Street and passing the farmer’s market. They turned around near One Mile Recreation Area before completing the five-kilometer walk.
This year marked the 11th anniversary of NAMI Walks; Butte County’s first walk occurred in 2010. NAMI volunteer Calleene Egan is the walk’s primary organizer.
Egan said she has a few family members who suffer from mental illness and that her mother volunteers for NAMI in the Bay Area. She also works in non-profit organization Caminar’s job-development program, helping those with severe mental illness obtain employment.
“Mental illness is nothing to be afraid of or ashamed of,” Egan said. “It’s something we need to fight back against, and we need to embrace those who suffer.”
Egan said NAMI Walks address that very purpose, and also serve as the group’s only major fundraiser.
“NAMI is entirely volunteer-based, so we make the most out of whatever we get,” she said, noting that the Sierra Health Foundation and Butte County Behavioral Health helped fund the walk.
The organization raises money from the event through walk registration, donated food sales and a raffle. Raffle prizes were donated from local businesses, she said, including gift certificates from Ricardo’s Mexican Cantina, Mom’s and a bike from Sensible Cyclery. Sensible Cyclery, located at 2505 Esplanade, is a Caminar-run social enterprise that sells used bikes reconditioned by workers with disabilities.
NAMI Butte County’s services include a monthly support group for families of persons with mental illness and a number of educational programs, including Family to Family and Peer to Peer courses.
Family to Family is a 12-week course for family caregivers. It’s taught by family members and covers the latest information on mental disorders, medications, available resources, helps teach caregivers coping strategies, and promotes advocacy. The Peer to Peer program’s goal is to help those suffering from mental illness learn to live with their conditions and is taught by mentors who have learned to live with their disability.
Other NAMI programs include In Our Own Voice and Ending the Silence. At the former event, two people who have suffered from mental illness share their personal experiences. The latter program focuses on teenage mental-health issues and is designed to be presented to high school health classes. NAMI Butte County is currently recruiting volunteers for these two programs.
The group’s next public event is a May 16 film and discussion at the Chico Library about living with bipolar disorder.