This is a story from my good friend and great writer, Martha Peck. I’m giving my $100 today to NAMI. After reading this, you’ll probably want to give, too.
My brother Barney Jones likes to modify the lyrics of his favorite songs and chant them like existential poetry. When I picked him up recently at his boarding home, he let a verse fly after he struggled into his seatbelt and threw his art books onto the back seat. “I’m a real nowhere man, going in a nowhere van, riding with my sister to our nowhere land.”
Barney is a talented abstract expressionist painter. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia nearly 35 years ago, at the age of 18. He became ill while studying art in New York City. Though his disease has taken a severe toll on his life and overall health, Barney has been able to paint off and on through most of it. It’s as though his talent was somehow sacred ground, and his disease circled around it but couldn’t steal it away. Still, Barney never finished college, has never held a job, had a relationship with a woman, or lived on his own. He’s been in and out of psych wards, residential inpatient facilities, and group boarding homes his entire adult life. My parents, my husband, my son, and I have all fumbled and bumbled our way through his illness, trying to come to terms with it – wrestling the beast to the ground. There have been many chapters of confusion, grief, anger, and exhaustion. I’ll spare you the details of our toil and sorrow, because in the bigger picture, Barney is a sweet success story. Here’s why.
More than 2 million Americans suffer from the medical illness called schizophrenia. In fact, it’s twice as common as HIV/AIDS. Schizophrenia strikes people of all races and both genders, and cuts across all social and economic classes. Unfortunately though, only a third of all Americans living with this disease receive treatment. Why aren’t more people suffering from mental illness receiving the care they need and deserve? There are so many factors involved – stigma, ignorance, and of course the behemoth monster called our Health Care System. Commonly, there is an enormous delay that occurs from the time of first symptoms of schizophrenia, to receiving treatment for it. The average delay is 8.5 years! So much can happen during 8.5 years, including becoming homeless, ending up in jail, or committing suicide.
Mental Illness doesn’t have a Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie working on its behalf. But that doesn’t mean that progress isn’t being made. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is our brightest hope for Americans impacted by schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. NAMI was formed in 1979 and today is the strongest grassroots mental health advocacy organization in the country. NAMI focuses its efforts in three cornerstone areas: Awareness, Education, and Advocacy. NAMI’s efforts have made a difference for Barney and countless others, to receive adequate medical care, housing, and essential support services. Mental illness is scary, ugly, and it often smells bad. But for those who are lucky enough to have proper meds and housing, support services, and people who care about them, there is still beauty, art, and dignity to their lives. You can find out more about NAMI at http://www.nami.org.