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Thursday, May 19, 2011 03:00 am

Sick without sympathy

Mental illness advocates aim to erase stigma


Sarah Williamson is one of three NAMI members bringing awareness to mental health issues by sharing personal experiences.

For the first time in years, Springfield resident Sarah Williamson is off Social Security disability. After 10 years in and out of college, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from UIS in 2009. Today, four months into a new job and at the healthiest she’s been in 15 years, 30-year-old Williamson is planning to one day earn a master’s degree in social work, to have children with her husband of three years and to continue advocating for those who, like her, are struggling through mental illness.

It’s important to have goals and recognize your accomplishments, says Williamson, who has been diagnosed with major recurrent depression and personality disorder, an illness that has meant four hospitalizations and five partial hospitalizations, periods of time when patients might live at home but attend lengthy counseling sessions on a daily basis, since 2006. Pushing forward with hope is the fifth and final element in a program the local chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is bringing to the Springfield area.

Starting this month, Williamson, along with two other local consumers – the term used for those who “consume” mental health services – will share their personal experiences with mental illness during “In Our Own Voice” presentations, a public education campaign implemented by NAMI groups in 38 states. During the presentations, typically between 60 and 90 minutes in length, trained “In Our Own Voice” presenters share their own stories as they walk audiences through five aspects of mental illness – dark days, acceptance, treatment, coping strategies and success in spite of it all.  Though the local “In Our Own Voice” crew will deliver its first presentation this month to social service workers, the program is accessible to a broader audience, whether or not members are directly affected by mental illness. The presenters take questions and encourage discussion, with a goal of eliminating the stigma of mental illness from the minds of those both with and without the illness.

“Even though mental illness is not as much of a taboo as it used to be, there is still a stigma out there and we just want to help people understand,” Williamson says, explaining that even her own acceptance of her illness didn’t come easy. “Nobody wants to be labeled crazy or not normal.”

Linda Thompson, whose daughter has a brain disorder, is the education coordinator and a past president of the Springfield NAMI, an all-volunteer organization that offers twice-monthly support groups for consumers and their families and friends. She calls mental illness “the no-casserole illness.”

“If you have a family member who goes into the hospital and they have cancer or diabetes, family members or friends bring casseroles to your home. You don’t get that when someone has a brain disorder or mental illness. People don’t want to openly talk about it,” Thompson says. Both she and Williamson say a common reaction to mental illness is the suggestion to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

“Those are just very insensitive statements. No individual would want to have these illnesses,” Thompson says.

She adds that the local NAMI started looking into bringing “In Our Own Voice” to Springfield about a year ago, and she gives credit to Williamson and the other two presenters for their courage. “They’re exposing their raw feelings and being very open about their illness, and that’s very hard to do.”

To schedule a presentation, community groups are invited to call Thompson at 217-415-9616. NAMI is also seeking a $5,000 grant through the Pepsi Refresh Project, which awards grants based on project popularity, to purchase audio-visual equipment to aid presenters. Community members can vote for the “In Our Own Voice” project at www.refresheverything.com/namispringfieldil

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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