Imagine a stream.
On one side people are in crisis or emerging from crisis. Perhaps they are just getting out of jail, being released from the hospital after a suicide attempt or putting their lives back together while recovering from substance abuse.
On the other side of the stream people are living well, enjoying healthy relationships, providing for themselves and their families and engaged in the community.
People on each side are navigating mental illness. How does a person get from one side to the other?
The most important factor, said Patty Wisner, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Payson, is their support system.
Wisner spoke to the Payson Tea Party Wednesday night at Tiny’s Family Restaurant about services available for residents and their families.
Wisner said NAMI works to connect people with the resources they need to cross the stream and get the help they need.
The definition of mental illness, said Wisner, is “a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood and ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Like diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are disorders of the brain and they are medical illnesses.”
Wisner said there are an estimated 2,801 people in Payson with an anxiety disorder, 1,068 with major depression, 170 with schizophrenia and 402 with bipolar disorder.
That’s just four examples of potential mental illnesses a person can have.
And then there are people with dual diagnosis.
Audience member Bruce Wales asked about the connection between alcoholism and mental illness.
“In my experience if you take a mental illness and add alcohol you can compound it by 1,000,” she said. “Alcohol is very destructive to people suffering with depression and other mental illnesses. A high percentage of severe mental illnesses have co-occurring substance abuse disorders.”
Wisner said that until recently, people with dual diagnoses were instructed to address one at a time. For example, they would be sent to a 12-step or inpatient program for alcoholism, then given treatment for their bipolar disorder after they were sober. Or vice versa. Now, mental health officials treat both conditions concurrently.
Many individuals with mental illness attempt to self-medicate with substance use including alcohol, drugs, food, and prescription drugs.
“People don’t want to seek help and get ahead of the crisis because they don’t want their community members or their family and friends to think less of them,” said Wisner. “The stigma deters people from getting the help they need to lead a better life.”
“Stigma surrounding the receipt of mental health treatment is among the many barriers that discourage people from seeking treatment,” said former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher. “Another manifestation of stigma is reflected in the public’s reluctance to pay for mental health services.”
Stigma about suicide can be even more difficult to overcome. Suicide rates in the United States have risen nearly 30 percent since 1999 and mental health conditions are one of several factors contributing to suicide, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gila County has the third highest suicide rate in Arizona.
Homelessness, incarceration, hospitalization, self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse, relationship problems, loss of employment, financial ruin and other life crises can be caused or exacerbated by mental illness and can lead to suicidal ideation.
Many of these conditions are isolating, cutting a person off from the support they need, which increases the severity of the crisis.
A strong support system is essential for people to live happy healthy lives, said Wisner. “We as a community need to do a better job of helping people deal with life’s stressors.”
Wisner and Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey both said it is important to provide a strong support system to veterans. Wisner provided information on the organization Be Connected AZ that connects Arizona service members, veterans, families and helpers to information, support and resources.
Wisner told the story of a veteran who had paid all his bills then ran out of money and could not feed his cat. He called Be Connected AZ and they connected him to a retail outlet that donated a year’s supply of cat food.
For more information on the services provided, contact BeConnectedAZ.org, or call 866-4AZ-VETS (866-429-8387).
Wisner talked about Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
“He used two canes,” said Wisner. “Nobody carried him. His team guided him every step of the way. It’s a very inspiring story that’s all about support. His team said ‘you want to do that, we’ll get you there.’ If a blind man can scale Mount Everest imagine what we can do in our community to help those with mental illness.”
Wisner first learned about NAMI in 2013.
She completed a 12-week certification class in Scottsdale and was instrumental in forming the Payson chapter of NAMI the following year.
NAMI Payson offers free education and support programs for people whose lives are affected by mental illness.
NAMI Payson, a non-profit organization, offers a variety of free programs for individuals and families. For a full list of programs, visit https://namipayson.org/programs/.