Rebecca Glathar is the executive director of NAMI Utah, the local organization of the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, which offers free mental-health education. Anyone struggling to find help can visit NAMIUt.org or call NAMI mentors (801-323-9900 or toll-free 877-230-6264, Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.) to talk to a supportive, trained mentor; receive referrals to classes, groups and housing options; or get step-by-step help on applying for various clinics and treatments. On Oct. 19, the organization will host its annual NAMI Walk; teams will be walking around Liberty Park starting at 10 a.m. (registration begins 8:30 a.m., visit NAMIWalks.org/Utah for more information). Many will be walking in remembrance of someone they’ve lost. The goal of the event is to spread awareness about mental illness; 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable mental illness.
Why is awareness important for mental illness?
There’s so much misinformation, and so many myths, and just lack of ability to have the conversation. We have people all the time who say, “I don’t talk to my family about this, I don’t talk to anyone about this.” To have a forum where people can have an open conversation and get educated is really important.
Think about the way that we talk about and think about people with mental illness. With Halloween coming, it’s completely appropriate for people to make fun of people who are ill, to dress up, to make haunted houses out of people with mental illness. And we’re creating fear around it—“You should be really scared of people who have mental illness.”
And we perpetuate that all the time—in the stories reported about mental illness, you don’t hear about people who are living with mental illness really successfully; you just hear about the tragedies. You don’t hear about the times when they are victimized; you only hear about the times when they’re perpetrators. And if you go online and look at the comment board after a tragedy involving someone with a mental illness, they are absolutely vicious. I think a lot of that is from lack of understanding and fear.
What does NAMI do to combat that misinformation?
We have three tiers of education that we provide. The first tier is to the individual dealing with the illness. When you get this diagnosis, you’ve probably been dealing with these symptoms, and so in some ways, it’s like, “Ohhh, this is what’s happening to me.” But then, the immediate follow-up question is, “OK, what does that mean? How do I deal with this? What’s it going to mean for jobs, for relationships?” So the first thing that we do is provide education classes for the person with the illness. We have a set curriculum; we train individuals who have successfully lived with mental illness themselves to peer-teach others who are needing that information.
They go through things like, “What is mental illness?”—what are the symptoms, what are the treatments, what are some of the coping skills that I need? How do I put together a coping plan, where if I’m in trouble, what do I want to have happen, plus coping strategies, that kind of thing. The great thing about our classes is that as people go through them and move further along in recovery, we encourage them to become teachers. It perpetuates itself.
We have other classes for family members taught by other trained family members who have been there, and get it, because they’ve experienced it themselves. We give them a set curriculum; it’s a national evidence-based program called Family to Family, and it goes through some of those same topics—what mental illness is, the stages of recovery. It talks about interpersonal relationships—mental illness can really strain a marriage, whether it’s the partner who has the illness, or if a child. It can be difficult to manage relationships with other siblings because you’re giving so much time and energy and attention to this one child. Family members just need a chance to process and talk about and deal with all of these factors.
The class also educates them about what resources are available. There are great resources available in the community, and people say, “I didn’t know about that, I wish I would’ve known.” If you have a family member who has an active mental illness, and you’re concerned about their safety or the safety of those around, you’re going to be told to call the police. So, just imagine being a parent and seeing a child that is very ill, and what you have to do is call the police. And likely, when the police come, they’re going to throw them to the ground and handcuff them and haul them off to jail. And that’s the first-line response. So these families are torn. We let them know about a resource that’s available called the Crisis Intervention Team. They’re trained officers that receive 40 hours of additional training to know how to manage and de-escalate mental-health situations. So when families come to our class, we say, “If you have to call 911, ask for a CIT-trained officer.”
But more than the education and the resources, what we hear is that the biggest benefit of being in the class is they’re surrounded by other people who are in the same situation. They’re able to finally talk about it and say, “I’m not alone. These other families look normal just like me.” Because you start to isolate and feel like, “Is it just me? Am I the only one? Everyone around me thinks I’m weird, doesn’t want to associate with me or my child because they’re different.”
Then we go broader, to the community, because mental illness doesn’t just affect the individual and the family; it impacts all different parts of their lives, from education to their employment options to getting around on public transportation to possible involvement with the criminal-justice system. All of these different entities need education about mental illness. So we also provide a lot of education to them. We partner with the police officers, with the CIT training. We go into the jails. We go into the provider networks. We train students and teachers about mental illness.
Does mental illness need to be talked about more in schools?
Statistically, about 50 percent of mental illness hits by age 14, and 75 percent by age 24. So you’ve got that group that’s in high school and in college that’s making basically all of the life decisions that are going to impact where they end up as an adult—finishing school, learning to develop relationships with other people, gaining job skills ... and all of that is derailed when they’re dealing with a mental illness during that time period. So then they don’t graduate, they don’t know how to develop healthy relationships, they don’t develop job experience. So the cycle carries on, and it impacts their trajectory for basically the rest of their lives. There’s also typically a lapse time of about 10 years or more between the first symptom and the first treatment that happens. We’re trying to educate parents, teachers, students and the community about how to differentiate normal teenage angst from something that possibly needs some intervention.
How does mental illness manifest itself in that age group?
There is that segment of serious mental illness that’s going to convey itself in strange, bizarre behavior, but we are in the top 10 states for suicide on a continual basis. So you also have the kids who are doing really well in school, who are the captains of the football team, who are very popular, who are in the National Honor Society ... and then they die. And nobody knew that they were struggling with depression, with perhaps an anxiety disorder or a mood disorder. So we need to get the information out to them so they know, “You are not alone. This is going to pass. You don’t have to be perfect, and if you’re struggling with these things, you need to reach out to someone.”
What are some of the signs that someone is contemplating suicide?
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a great list on their website. Some things would be a sudden loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, giving things away, being abnormally moody, or disconnected, isolated, depressed, crying a lot. Those are all symptoms that would all warrant questions.
That’s another one of the myths out there: that if you ask about suicide, you’re going to put the thought in their head. That’s completely untrue. If you’re concerned about it, and they’ve thought about it, you’re not putting the thought in their head by asking them. If they haven’t, then they’re going to be like, “That’s ridiculous.” But if they have, then it opens up the opportunity to have a conversation about, “OK, what level are you at? What have you thought about so far?” And then there are appropriate ways to intervene and help them get more information. And at that point, it may be appropriate to involve a mental-health or medical professional.
How did you get your start in mental-health work?
Everyone who works at NAMI is here because they have an individual relationship with NAMI; either they live with mental illness themselves, or they have a loved one who lives with mental illness. It’s one of the powers behind what we do. We’re a small nonprofit and none of us makes very much money, and we all do the job of about seven people—as is getting more and more typical—but we’re all here because we’re passionate, and because we know that more people need information and education. Did I ever think I would be here? Absolutely not. I don’t think that anyone who’s impacted by mental illness ever thinks that. Nobody ever chooses to be impacted by mental illness. And that’s one of the other myths—that people just choose, that it’s a weakness, or they’re not trying hard enough, or, “Well, you just have to ignore the voices, and then they’ll go away.”