Organization aims to combat stigma of mental illness

NAMI14According to National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, one in four adults, approximately 61.5 million Americans, experiences mental illness in a given year. One in seventeen, about 13.6 million, live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. Chances are you know someone with this disease. Stigma has kept those who deal with any of these disorders hidden in the dark. Stigma from both sides. Those who experience one of these diseases, known as “consumers,” keep it to themselves fearing negative reaction from disclosure. A vast majority who do not struggle with one of these diseases have been in the darkness of societal stereotypes that originate back to the middle ages.

Whether it be diabetes, high blood pressure or any other life-long disease, the problem again is the stigma. There are group out there that are working hard to eliminate this and provide help and guidance to those who are coping day-to-day with the disease of mental illness. One such organization on the forefront here is Western Pennsylvania and nationwide is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Established in 1983, NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania is a 501(c)3 grassroots, non-profit organization that provides support, education and advocacy to individuals and families affected by mental illness. Recognized as a thought leader on mental illness throughout the region, NAMI believes that recovery from mental illness is possible, champions improvements to the mental health system and promotes acceptance and understanding of mental illness

The dedicated staff and volunteers provide recovery-focused support and education programs throughout the region. A membership-based organization, NAMI works diligently to ensure the collective voice of its membership is heard by legislators, the media and stakeholders. NAMI strives to raise awareness, end stigma and create a culture of knowledge and compassion for mental illness.

NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania serves the 10-county region that includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland counties. It is affiliated with both the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and NAMI PA.

“At NAMI SWPA, we provide support, education, and advocacy for people affected by mental illness.  We strive to raise awareness, end stigma, and create a culture of knowledge and compassion for mental illness,” said Christine Michaels, Executive Director.

One of these recovery-focused support groups is the In Our Own Voice (IOOV) program. Individuals who feel comfortable sharing their personal stories apply, screened and accepted into the program for presenter training. The training is an intensive two day workshop that teaches the future presenters to cover a framework consisting of: Dark Days, Acceptance, Treatment, Coping Skills and Successes, Hopes and Dreams. Once the training is complete, the certified presenters become part of the IOOV program. Presenters are teamed up in pairs to share their personal stories with the community of consumers, family, mental health care providers, public officials, legislators, faith-based communities and concerned citizens in general.

“IOOV is an important tool to demonstrate to people affected by mental illness that there is hope.” Executive Director Christine Michaels continued, “By reducing the stigma of mental illness, we can show people that it’s OK to seek treatment and that it’s possible to live a meaningful and satisfying life.”

As a staff writer of the Pennsylvania Bridges family, I am writing about the importance of this organization and programs like In Our Own Voice as I live with Bipolar Disorder and am proud to say I have recently been certified as a presenter. Stigma will only evaporate if we all understand that we can come together and realize that recovery IS for EVERYONE and IT IS possible to reclaim a good quality of life.

SWPA NAMI’s 16th Annual Education Conference is coming up on April 9, 2016 and will be held at the Pittsburgh Airport Marriot. For more information on NAMI, IOOV Presentations, upcoming Conference and/or Membership, please contact Susan Harrington at 412-366-3788.
Story by Fred Terling for Pennsylvania Bridges