The signs people carry during the National Alliance on Mental Health five-mile walk reveal this is a personal cause for most.
One says “I love someone with a mental illness,” another says “Mental illness is not a lifestyle choice,” and, on another, “Mental illness is not a character flaw.” One young woman wears a red T-shirt that says in bold black letters, “Kiss me, I’m bipolar.”
Sponsored by the Los Angeles chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the annual event, held in Santa Monica, raises public awareness as well as funds for a grassroots support system to help individuals and families whose lives have been impacted by mental illness.
Through its free educational programs and support groups, NAMI teaches people how to deal with the financial burdens, emotional upheavals and everyday issues that come up when you have a mentally ill family member. Its 17 chapters throughout Los Angeles offer peer-support meetings, speaker forums and orientation seminars for health professionals and family members.
NAMI’s eighth walk will be held on Saturday, October 1, and starts at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade on the corner of Third Street and Broadway. Sign-up for the Walk starts at 8 a.m. giving attendees an hour and a half to stroll the block, visit booths set up by various local mental health advocates, sip coffee, mingle and share stories with others who understand.
“People have a tendency to think mental illness is a flaw,” says Sharon Dunas, the president of the Westside Los Angeles chapter of NAMI, echoing the messages carried on the walkers’ signs. “Selfishness is a character flaw. Depression is a little different. You can’t just talk yourself out of it. You have to treat it.”
A therapist for 25 years, Dunas says that when mental illness strikes, families often feel a sense of embarrassment and shame — no one wants to talk about it. She says her professional background wasn’t enough to help her cope when her daughter became mentally ill.
“Most people don’t have the skills to deal with it,” she says. “The goal of NAMI is to offer family members those skills.”
Dunas says people often expect the mentally ill to “just get over it,” while with physical illness, people accept that recovery takes time. She says in the case of mental illness, family members often end up blaming each other, and amid all the frustration and anger, no one can get well.
“If you have a heart attack or heart surgery, you need time to get better,” she says. “The same is true for a mental illness.”
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that more than 25 percent of Americans aged 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. That translates to more than 57 million people whose mental illness renders them incapable of living on their own.
Sometimes unable to hold down a job, they end up living on the streets or become increasingly dependent on their families.
“The best thing you can do is be a friend to someone who suffers from a mental illness,” a walker said. “Participating in the Walk is a great way to let those friends and family members know that we’re here to support them.”
Created to raise funds for services that help families cope with mental illness, the Los Angeles affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) will hold its eighth walk on Saturday, October 1, in Santa Monica. Registration for the walk is 8 a.m. at Third Street and Broadway at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade.
For more information about the event, visit:
NAMI Walks or call: 213 251-6519