According to National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults — approximately 61.5 million Americans — experiences mental illness in a given year, and one in 17 — about 13.6 million — live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.
The sad reality of those figures is mental illness can be difficult to distinguish from normal mental health, mainly because there’s a broad range of disorders shrouded in secrecy, embarrassment and misunderstanding.
But the stigmas surrounding mental disorders continue to uphold a barrier between those who reluctantly seek care and those who view the mentally ill as dangerous and unstable.
“Mental illness doesn’t get identified until someone’s in a crisis. They may be somewhat depressed or not going out and socializing, but many don’t know until it gets serious, like maybe when they try to take their own life,” said Carolyn Tinkham, president of the Golden Isles chapter of NAMI.
Having a comprehensive course “to identify and assess situations before they get to a crisis point” is something that could help shine a light on a silent struggle that plagues the nation, Tinkham said.
“A lot of (mental illnesses) go undiagnosed and this is one way to help.”
For that very reason, Nina Kennedy and Gateway Behavioral Health Services believe it’s time to break down that barrier. Through a collaborative community outreach, Gateway has partnered with several other agencies to host free mental health education programs “to address the behavioral health needs of those living in Glynn, Camden and McIntosh counties,” said Kennedy, the center’s clinical director.
“This is a regional collaboration and we are doing this with all types of agencies in the area to do some brainstorming for behavioral health needs.”
This is made possible through National Council for Behavioral Health’s Mental Health First Aid program. Based on the model of its eight-hour course, Kennedy said the program is designed to help first and second responders, as well as civilians, identify, understand and react to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders.
This includes recognizing the signs and symptoms of such disorders as PTSD, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and bipolar and schizophrenia disorders.
“We’ve already had one training at the end of May that consisted of mental health first aid training on adults for first responders in Glynn and McIntosh counties,” Kennedy said.
“Right now, we’re working with NAMI to expand how we can offer CIT, or crisis intervention training, for law enforcement. That’s a 48-hour based training for those who haven’t worked in recognizing or intervening a behavioral health crisis.
“It teaches them how to respond and what are some of the best resources to intervene.”
While the CIT training at College of Coastal Georgia saw about 12 participants earlier this month, Gateway, which is leading the community collaborative, is currently still creating more mental health programs for the public.
“We’re in the implementation stages ... (but) we’ve identified four major projects and are addressing two simultaneously,” Kennedy said.
One is on mental health education for the community and other professionals who may have to deal with it, such as the hospital and police and sheriff’s departments. The other revolves around a synergetic list or website for behavioral health providers and a list of services.
“We’re creating the resource guide or website because when we’ve gotten the data and surveys, people simply didn’t know about mental illness and substance abuse. Our main goal is (clinical) community linkage,” Kennedy said.
But mental health isn’t all the collaboration is hoping to tackle.
“We are also brainstorming about transportation, housing and employment opportunities (for those suffering from mental illness). We’re moving forward with getting people trained, and gathering and getting a concrete schedule together for the community, hopefully over the next 90 to 120 days,” Kennedy said.
“This is very much a collaborative effort with the school system, Family Connection, the police departments, Glynn County Public Health Department and an assortment of other folks, even though Gateway is leading it.”
The course itself was certainly a huge help for Tinkham, who is a trained facilitator for family support groups with NAMI.
“You can usually tell if something’s wrong with a friend or coworker and know how to express your concern to them, but this course helps you to talk with the person and encourage them to get help like seeing a therapist or psychiatrist,” Tinkham said of the two-day course.
“There’s so much stigma about mental health and many people don’t seek help when they need it. This offers people a step-by-step procedure on how to speak to them and what to look for before it becomes a crisis. Anyone who can attend should come out and do it.
“The more we can realize that mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain,” the closer we’ll be to debunking myths and destroying the stigma of mental illness, Tinkham said.
Above all else, the course, in Kennedy’s opinion, is to remind residents that though it may not affect them personally, mental illness is ubiquitous.
“There’s always a need for this service — for challenges whether diagnosed or not — and there will be a need. If a family friend has a need, help guide them in the right direction toward the behavioral health resources,” Kennedy said.
“We definitely have more opportunities than people know of and recovery is a way of living life and helping people find what their paths are.”
For those who are suffering from mental illness or know someone who is, help can be found at numerous agencies including Gateway, NAMI, FaithWorks, Southeast Georgia Health System, Family Connection, Glynn County Health Department and Coastal Community Health Services.