Kansas City Regional Health News

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Local Efforts Combat Stigma of Mental Illness

By Rick Hellman, HCF/KHI News Service, May 4, 2011

LENEXA, Kan. – After Jeremy McDowell’s teenage son made a second suicide attempt, the sports entrepreneur decided to use the power of his business, where nearly 2 million people annually come through the turnstiles, to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Thus, on May 13-15 McDowell’s Midwest Sports Productions will host the first softball tournament to benefit the Kansas City chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

It is one of a host of activities NAMI-KC and others are planning this year throughout the metro area to try to change public attitudes about people dealing with mental illness.

“So many parents are blind-sided by this,” McDowell said. “They think ‘Not my kid.’ And then I realized how many people are affected by this and how many go untreated because their loved ones don’t know the signs or don’t want to face the fact that this is an illness, a treatable illness. … It woke me up to the stigma.”

Fortunately, McDowell said, his son “is still with us” and doing better emotionally these days. But while dealing with the situation, he said, “I realized that nobody wants to talk about it. It was hard to find the support groups that you need.”

When McDowell learned about NAMI-KC and its various efforts to aid families like his and to educate the public, he became a supporter and organized the tourney -- one of about 150 his company will host this year.

He said he expects nearly 50 teams to participate and called it “a good start.” The purpose of the event will be to raise money and awareness, with educational booths adjoining the playing fields.

“There will be 2,000 to 2,500 people we can touch,” McDowell said.

The tournament was one of several awareness-raising efforts discussed by about two dozen people on Tuesday, April 26, at Research Psychiatric Center in Kansas City, Mo. It was the third meeting of a group convened by the center’s chief executive, Richard Failla, and dedicated to reducing the stigma of mental illness.

Failla, who sits on the board of NAMI-KC, said he led a similar effort in his previous job as deputy administrator of mental health services for the state of Nevada.

“We started to work on stigma because in certain parts of Las Vegas, people didn’t want to go to the Emergency Room of the hospital,” Failla said, because the ER was often crowded with people suffering from mental illness and acting out.

Failla blamed the problem on a state mental-hospital system inadequate to meet the demand for services.

The stigma of mental illness can reach into the health professions, too.

He said he had detected “some reluctance to work with people who are mentally ill,” on the part of ER workers across the campus at Research Medical Center.

“It’s a brain disorder,” Failla said of mental illness. “People do get better if you get them treatment. … We want the same acceptance for mental illness as for any other chronic illness like diabetes.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Failla offered financial support from Research Medical Center’s corporate parent, HCA, for events like the softball tourney.

The meeting participants, representing public and private agencies and support groups, had lots of plans, from sporting events to fundraising dinners to radio-show appearances.

“We want to have something every month,” Failla said.

One ongoing, local effort is Mental Health First Aid, a program that the Missouri Department of Health helps promulgate as part of a national campaign. Founded in Australia in 2001, Mental Health First Aid has now expanded to 14 countries.

Thus far, more than 100 Missourians and a dozen Kansans have taken the 12-hour course, which teaches them how to identify and help people with mental-health problems.

Jermine Alberty, coordinator of development and education at Comprehensive Mental Health Services in Independence, Mo., has taken the course and is certified to train others to lead it, too. He said he has used its principles in dealing with one of his own family members who is mentally ill.

Maureen Hennessey is a psychologist, consultant, clinical assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and a former health-system executive. She said she was impressed with the program.

“The future of health care will rely increasingly on cost-sensitive, boots-on-the-ground paraprofessionals and volunteers providing early preventive, motivational and maintenance patient-support services for family members and clients,” Hennessey said in an email. “Mental Health First Aid is a program in the vanguard of this movement. It instructs health-care consumers in skills useful in facilitating coping and self-care under conditions of extreme emotional distress, until additional, professional help is available, or the crisis has satisfactorily subsided. I’ve had opportunities to provide the training, and the feedback that I’ve received … is that it is a valuable complement to conventional health, prevention and wellness services.”

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