An ambitious new mental health campaign is targeting everyone from high school students to political candidates to raise awareness about mental illness and promote recovery.
The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) announced its newest initiative, "The Campaign for the Mind of America," in early October. The campaign includes an expansion of NAMI’s educational and antistigma efforts.
NAMI is a mental health advocacy organization composed of 220,000 members, including people with mental illness and their families.
"The campaign is about convincing taxpayers and legislators that there are opportunities for excellent treatment in our mental health system," said NAMI Executive Director Richard Birkel, Ph.D. This knowledge is especially important for "would-be consumers," he said, who are "screening themselves out of treatment because of ignorance and misunderstanding."
As part of the campaign, NAMI placed a number of educational spots about mental illness in USA Today to coincide with Mental Illness Awareness Week, which ran from October 6 to 12 this year. The spots featured information about several mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression, for instance, and referred readers to NAMI’s Web site to learn more about them.
NAMI has also begun educating high school debaters, who this year are arguing for and against the following resolution: That the federal government should substantially increase public health services for mental health care in the United States (Psychiatric News, September 20).
NAMI is reaching the debaters through a series of articles that will be appearing in the National Forensic League’s (NFL) magazine, Rostrum. The magazine, which reaches about 2,600 schools 10 times a year, educates students, teachers, and debate coaches about various debate topics and strategies.
The NFL is a nonprofit educational honor society established in 1925 to encourage high school students to become involved in debate and public speaking.
In the first of a series of articles that appeared in the October 1 issue of Rostrum, NAMI President Jim McNulty described his struggles with bipolar disorder, problems with the current mental health system, and the importance of providing mental health parity to all American employees. He also illustrated the need for better mental health care with some compelling statistics—for example, 200,000 people with mental illness live on the streets, and 250,000 are behind bars in the nation’s prisons.
Birkel called NAMI’s liaison with the NFL "an excellent opportunity for us to tell young people the truth about mental illness."
In addition to high school students, NAMI worked on getting political candidates up to speed on a number of issues pertaining to mental health and mental illness with its "I Vote, I Count" program.
The program seeks to educate candidates and voters alike on pressing mental health issues across the U.S. while clarifying candidates’ positions on the issues.
"In this year’s elections, there was a great deal of turnover in the state legislatures due to term limits and redistricting," program director Mike Fitzpatrick explained. "We saw this as a tremendous [opportunity] to educate candidates about mental health issues."
Fitzpatrick called declining state budgets and skyrocketing health care costs "a perfect storm of budget crises" that have forced candidates to confront mental health topics head on.
"Rapidly declining revenues haven’t flattened out yet, and health care costs are rising at 13 percent," Fitzpatrick said. The time leading up to the November elections was opportune "for candidates to talk about how they plan to deal with the Medicaid program, medications, and funding community services."
To start a dialogue between candidates and voters, NAMI held candidate forums at 49 sites across the country on its own or with other groups, such as the League of Women Voters. At the forums, NAMI members asked prearranged questions on mental health topics.
Fitzpatrick said that there were usually about five questions about mental health issues pertaining to children and adolescents, adults, and elderly people at each forum.
In addition, NAMI created questionnaires with relevant questions on mental health for political candidates to complete. NAMI then publicized the results of the questionnaires so that voters could make a well-informed decision at the polls, according to Fitzpatrick.
NAMI leaders also hold meetings with the candidates once they get into office to continue the "education and relationship-building process," Fitzpatrick said.
The Campaign for the Mind of America also involves the expansion of two of NAMI’s longstanding programs. One is the Family to Family Education Program, in which families of people with mental illness come together for a free 12-week course to share their experiences, explore topics related to recovery and rehabilitation, and become advocates.
The course began in Vermont in 1991 and has since spread to 45 states. During the course, NAMI leaders teach family members the skills that will help them cope with a number of mental illnesses including schizophrenia, depression, and panic disorder.
According to Lynne Saunders, director of technical assistance for NAMI’s education and support programs, "when people first join the class, many know nothing about NAMI and may for the first time be speaking publicly about mental illness."
Toward the end of the course, however, the pupils learn to become fledgling advocates. NAMI leaders teach family members about advocacy initiatives in the local area and encourage family members to become involved. Many do, by joining letter-writing campaigns, telling their stories through the media, or supporting mental health legislation at the local, state, and national levels, according to Saunders.
NAMI will also be expanding its program, "In Our Own Voice: Living With Mental Illness." Based on the premise that experience is the best teacher, the program is led by people with mental illness in various stages of recovery.
For example, program leaders may talk about their first psychotic break and first hospitalization, according to Project Director Sara Yankalunas. Treatment strategies, hopes, dreams, and successes are also likely topics for discussion. Since the program’s inception in 1996, leaders have educated law enforcement officers, teachers, politicians, and general audiences about mental illness.
More information about NAMI’s Campaign for the Mind of America is posted on the Web at www.nami.org/pressroom/20021007.html. ▪