PORT ANGELES — In addition to facing the worries, frustrations and obstacles associated with mental illness, those going though crisis in their own minds also are faced with stigma, said speakers at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) statewide conference n Port Angeles.
Getting society as a whole to remove that stigma, and to view mental illnesses as diseases to be treated no differently than pneumonia or cancer, was a leading message during the conference, which took place Friday through Sunday at the Red Lion Hotel.
The themes of the conference were “The Road to Recovery” and why “Mental Health Matters” to everyone.
Barbara A. Miller, NAMI Washington board vice president and conference planning chair, said the themes reflect “our deep commitment to provide information and support to those who struggle, and to celebrate and recognize those who seek and discover recovery.”
Chris Juel, NAMI Clallam County president, said mental illness effects everyone, not just those with mental diseases.
“Everybody knows somebody,” she said.
“They may not admit it, but they do. It may be the drug addict next door, or the homeless person that we won’t even look in the eyes … the single mom just trying to keep it together, or the older person who can’t even speak about his or her struggle.”
Juel cautioned that some folks with mental illnesses might forego treatment in order to keep their conditions a secret, out of fear of being marked as abnormal.
“I believe the biggest thing that keeps the people from coming forward is stigma,” she said, adding that “perhaps the last big barrier of our society is mental health.”
During the three-day conference — attended by more than 180 legal, medical and research professionals, members of law enforcement and the general public — several sessions were presented each day to provide insight on mental health issues, with some focusing on programs in Clallam County.
Opening keynote speakers this year were Dr. Joshua Jones, chief physician officer of Olympic Medical Physicians, and Mary Giliberti, national executive director of NAMI.
“Sometimes, the health care industry doesn’t know how to treat people with mental illness medically or humanely,” Jones said during his presentation.
“I aim to change that. In my perfect world, mental illness would be regarded in the same way as other medical illnesses.”
That would include providing many with mental illnesses who are incarcerated with alternatives to jail or prison, Giliberti said.
“It is so wrong to have two million people with mental illness in our jails and our prisons,” she said. “It is the size of King County. It is a ton of people.”
The mass incarceration of those with mental illnesses, as opposed to receiving specialized care in a clinical setting, is due to lack of services and is fueled by stigma, Giliberti said.
“They do not send police when someone has a stroke or a heart attack,” she said.
“But with mental health, that is the response that we have.”
This was the first time Port Angeles has hosted the conference for the alliance.
“We as a community care about the treatment of people who have mental illness because they are our neighbors, siblings, loved ones and friends,” said Lee Whetham, Port Angeles city councilman, during the conference.
“The mentally ill population in Port Angeles faces major challenges from the lack of adequate housing to the everyday struggles they are fighting in their minds.”
The city’s residents “welcome the dialogue that comes from these conferences so that people who have mental illness can receive resources, be free of stigma and work towards building a better community that places acceptance as a high priority.”
Normalizing mental illness, and providing a helping hand to those in need, is a major goal for NAMI, Giliberti said.
“One of the most important things about NAMI, and why we matter is that … no one walks the journey of mental illness alone.”
Giliberti also wants to focus more on providing mental health services to youths.
“Seventy-five percent of [mental] conditions onset before you are age 24,” she said.
“When you [consider] the future and how the demographics are changing and getting younger, we need to think about that issue.”
For those facing mental illness, “the road to recovery is about balance,” Miller said.
“We are constantly falling down and getting back up again on a personal level. That is the mark of a real hero, no matter who you are, no matter what you do. If you fall down and get back up, you are a hero.”
For more information, visit http://www.namiwa.org/.
Features Editor Chris McDaniel can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56650, or at [email protected].