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Monday, October 19, 2020

Erasing mental illness misconceptions

Hundreds ran a 5k at Bloedel Donovan Park on Saturday, Oct. 10, to reject the stigma surrounding mental illness that affects one in four Americans.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Whatcom hosted its first annual Stigma Stomp and mental health fair to raise awareness of the prejudice against those living with a mental illness.

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“Every single person has a loved one with a mental illness,” senior Mackenzie Butler said. “If we all keep that in mind it doesn’t seem so weird or different or scary anymore.”

All of the funds raised from race tickets and sponsor donations for the Stigma Stomp–about $10,000–will go toward NAMI Whatcom’s 2016 budget.

NAMI Whatcom provides free, confidential support groups for individuals recovering from mental illnesses and their families. They also host six-to-10-week education classes and events for peers and caregivers.

Butler recently founded the organization’s newest chapter at Western, called NAMI on Campus WWU, which was one of 11 local mental health organizations represented at the mental health fair.

After volunteering at NAMI Whatcom for two years, Butler said she wanted to make recovery and support accessible to the one demographic the organization lacks in services: college-age adults.

Butler is aiming to improve Western’s outlook on mental illness and the way people use language in conversations about depression, she said.

As a university, Western tends to either ignore or glorify mental illnesses, Butler said.

“In my psychology classes, there’s a lot people that tend to act like people with mental illnesses are this separate entity, when in the room a quarter of the people have a mental illness,” Butler
said. “We just don’t say it because we don’t want to be the ‘weird, crazy-person’ we’re talking about.”

Nineteen percent of Western students report depression symptoms or a history of depression diagnosis, higher than rates reported nationally, according to the 2011 Whatcom County Health Assessment.

For Butler, those statistics recall a dismal time in her college experience, having suffered from depression herself, she said.

“I got to Western and things just fell apart,” she said.

Her sophomore year of college, Butler’s 17-year-old cousin committed suicide in his high school.

“That was really a wake-up call, knowing if I don’t get help now I’m going to end up down the same road,” she said.

Butler founded NAMI on Campus WWU with the purpose of helping prevent other families from losing a loved one to suicide and making the world more comfortable for people with depression, she said.

“NAMI Whatcom is a pretty-small organization, but they’re able to affect a lot of lives, so we’re hoping that if we can get 10-12 people who are really involved, we’ll be able to make a big difference at Western,” Butler said.

NAMI Whatcom Volunteer Kent Beach, 37, said he lives with diagnoses of schizoaffective and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Beach has grown so accustomed to being stigmatized that he no longer feels he can open up to people about his diagnoses, he said.

NAMI Whatcom is one place where people don’t treat him differently because of his mental illness, Beach said.

People who may be showing signs of mental illness, but are reluctant to pursue professional help because of the stigma, should call NAMI Whatcom’s confidential crisis line, he said.

“I think it’s important to realize there’s not going to be that judgment with the people you’re reaching out with [at NAMI Whatcom],” Beach said.

Forming interpersonal relationships with people at NAMI Whatcom has influenced the way Office Coordinator Juliann Salisbury perceives mental illness, Salisbury said.

“When I started — I’ll be honest — I felt uncomfortable with the idea of working with people directly who have different mental illnesses they may be living with,” Salisbury said. “But the more I got to know people, you kind of forget about their diagnoses.”

At NAMI Whatcom, language always puts the person first, Salisbury said. Instead of saying “he is schizophrenic,” they say, “he lives with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.”

Attendees of the Stigma Stomp release balloons proceeding the Mental Heath Fair on Saturday, Oct. 10, at Bloedel Donovan Park Multipurpose Room. // Photo by Caleb Galbreath
Attendees of the Stigma Stomp release balloons proceeding the Mental Heath Fair on Saturday, Oct. 10, at Bloedel Donovan Park Multipurpose Room. // Photo by Caleb Galbreath

“Changing the way we talk about that changes the way we see an illness because you are saying that is your identity, that is you,” she said.

Salisbury wants to continue to change negative perceptions of mental illness through awareness events such as the Stigma Stomp, and point people to resources available in Whatcom County, she said.

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