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Empathize More, Fear Less 

We all have a stake in addressing mental illness

click to enlarge CALEB WALSH
  • Caleb Walsh

The volunteers of NAMI Spokane, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, applaud the Inlander for its State of Mind series of articles that highlight the many challenges facing our community regarding issues related to under-treated mental illness. Unfortunately, because there is no place for individuals with severe mental illnesses in our society, these challenges are common to most cities and counties across the country. We have yet to accept the fact that they are blameless victims of brain conditions; conditions that may interfere with their ability to participate effectively in society. And we fall victim ourselves to the power of stigma, a misplaced cloud of disgrace surrounding our brothers and sisters who live with these conditions. It undermines our best intentions, allowing us to accept the discrimination that leads to inhumanity.

NAMI has been active in Spokane for over 30 years, helping everyone understand that lapses in the mental health of individuals are common in all populations around the world and need not be feared. Our mission is described in one sentence: We are dedicated to the eradication of mental illness and to improving the lives of all who are affected by mental illness.

Is the eradication of mental illness even possible? Though there is no cure yet, promising research shows that severity may be controlled through the establishment of prevention protocols involving early detection, early diagnosis and early "first strike" response. By sharing our own experiences, NAMI members help others learn that in most cases, symptoms of mental illness can be managed and recovery maintained. Treatment works only for those who can get it, however, so we constantly advocate for more and better treatment delivery as well as community support.

There are currents of change stirring in Spokane as our leaders and populace gradually become aware of the news that under-treated mental illness and substance abuse are the most prominent risks to the overall health and public safety of our community. As mental health advocates, NAMI outreach speakers routinely appear in classrooms, church groups, community action committee meetings, legislative forums and indeed legislators' offices, helping everyone learn to empathize more and fear less.

On the bright side, there are many promising local projects and helpful organizations championed by NAMI Spokane as beneficial to the promotion of mental health. The Smart Justice Campaign plan includes the provision of jail diversion programs for low-level offenders with mental illnesses that replace incarceration with treatment and training. The burgeoning Prevent Suicide Spokane is a coalition of local groups and advocates whose mission is the elimination of suicide in our local population. We are all encouraged by recent state legislation that mandates suicide prevention training for health care providers. Also promising progress, the Spokane Police Department has completed a round of Crisis Intervention Team trainings for all their officers on patrol, leading us to hope that more people who need help will receive help rather than face arrest and prosecution. The success of all the above depends on expanded treatment and support systems.

Meanwhile, NAMI Spokane continues to shine by sponsoring free education, support and advocacy programs that do help improve the lives of people affected by mental illness. And like it or not, given that untreated mental illness impacts every aspect of society, that's all of us. ♦

Ron Anderson is the president of the Spokane chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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