The High Country community is participating in spreading mental health advocacy through Mental Health Awareness Month in May.
These efforts contribute to a larger, national discussion about mental health discrimination and stigma, bettering public understanding about mental illness, according to mental health officiasl.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2 percent of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
In addition, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the country and Canada for ages 15 to 44.
A 2013 phone survey — a part of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System — indicated that 30.4 percent of adult North Carolinians reported that their mental health was “not good” for at least one of the past 30 days.
Despite the prevalence of mental illness, negative beliefs toward people with mental health conditions are widely common as well, causing stigma around mental illness, health officials said. The Mayo Clinic describes stigma as “when someone views you in a negative way because you have a distinguishing characteristic or personal trait that’s thought to be, or actually is, a disadvantage (a negative stereotype).”
Reluctance to seek help or treatment is a result of social stigma around mental illness, which can lead to suicide, an issue in the High Country area, according to officials. In Watauga County, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death, with 15.4 deaths by suicide per 100,000, above the state level of 12.2, according to the 2013 Watauga County State of Health report.
A 2011 survey of Watauga High School students reported that, during the past 12 months, 14.9 percent seriously considered suicide, according to officials.
Those who struggle with serious mental illness are not only challenged by the effects of the disorders, but also by the stereotypes and prejudices that result from public misrepresentations of mental illness. However, the High Country community is rising to contribute to the discussion and advocacy of mental health in efforts to remove the stigma around mental illness, officials said.
National Alliance on Mental Illness High Country
Locally, the High Country branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, offers support through monthly meetings, community events, classes and groups.
In April, NAMI High Country was a part of Appalachian State University’s Suicide Awareness Week, hosting an information table at Saturday morning’s Out of the Darkness Campus Walk, while participating in the event.
The organization also plans to have a class for those living with mental illness called “Peer-to-Peer,” beginning in July and lasting for 12 weeks.
The course provides critical information and strategies related to living with mental illness, as a recovery focused educational program for adults who wish to establish and maintain wellness in response to mental health challenges.
“We also plan to start a support group for those living with mental illness sometime this summer,” NAMI High Country president Caroline Bond said.
Additionally, the High Country chapter is looking for people who want to be In Our Own Voice, or IOOV, presenters. IOOV is a public education program developed by NAMI in which two trained people living with mental illness share compelling personal stories about living with mental illness and achieving recovery.
This involves an all-expenses-paid training through NAMI NC for presentations to groups which might want to learn more about mental illness, such as college classes, churches, high schools, community meetings and hospitals.
“It’s a great way to fight stigma, and many people say it’s helpful in their own recovery,” Bond said.
NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
The organization, with more than 1,100 state organizations and affiliates across the country, advocates at all levels, including research, support and education, to ensure that all persons affected by mental illness receive the services that they need and deserve, in a timely fashion, according to the organization’s mission.
Those who are interested in becoming an In Our Own Voice presenter for NAMI High Country, would like to request a presentation or want to learn more about the program, contact (828) 278-9293.
ASU’s Mental Health Ambassadors
Appalachian State University is also making efforts to eliminate the stigma around mental illness by providing information about local resources.
ASU's Mental Health Ambassadors, or MHA, are a group of undergraduate and graduate peer educators seeking to promote awareness of mental health issues through educational presentations and student interaction.
Dr. Denise Lovin, a psychologist and coordinator of the ASU Counseling and Psychological Services Center’s Eating Concerns Program, along with another staff psychologist, Leslie Martin, started the program about five years ago.
“The goal is to train peers to promote positive mental health amongst their peers and to encourage help seeking behavior,” Lovin said.
The ambassadors offer programs on conflict management, counseling center services — including how to help a friend and how to make a referral to counseling — depression/suicide, healthy relationships, healthy self-esteem, stress management, problem gambling and other addictive behaviors and the transition to college.
The ambassadors, about 20 persons per year, are trained to deliver a number of presentations on a variety of mental health-related topics.
“Mental health concerns are often stigmatized and hard for people to talk about, and our hope is to train students in how to talk about mental health amongst other students, so as to move past that stigma,” Lovin said.
MHA, representing the Counseling Center, also aids in events on campus and informs students of helpful resources.
To request a program, contact Denise Lovin at (828) 262-3180.
Smoky Mountain Center
More broadly, Smoky Mountain Center is holding various mental health trainings and forums in May and June for both Watauga and Avery counties.
Smoky held a Mental Health First Aid training in March in Watauga County.
Rachel E. Leonard-Spencer, the Smoky Mountain Center media and communications coordinator, said that the Mental Health First Aid trainings “encourage individuals to get treatment when needed and helps decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness by openly talking about mental health in our local communities.”
The center will offer crisis interventions team training sessions in Watauga County this month to provide law enforcement officers with advanced knowledge and skills to de-escalate crisis situations, since up to 40 percent of Americans with mental illness will pass through the criminal justice system.
The sessions emphasize treatment, rather than jail, for people with mental illness.
Leonard-Spencer said that the center has trained more than 550 Western North Carolina officers in CIT since 2008.
There will also be a community forum later this month in Avery County for community members to learn about mental health, substance use and intellectual and developmental disability services in the county.
The forum will be an opportunity for locals to talk about ways to improve services or make the system easier to use for consumers, families and providers.
Later in the summer, Smoky will offer Wellness Recovery Action Planning, or WRAP, in Watauga County.
“WRAP is essentially a plan as to how a person will manage his or her life, especially people with mental health or addiction issues,” Leonard-Spencer said.
Participants will meet with Smoky peer support specialists to identify what makes them well and use their own “wellness tools” to relieve difficult feelings, achieve a higher quality of life and pursue goals and dreams.
Additionally, Smoky values resiliency, the ability to recover from or adjust easily to change.
The center views resiliency as a ripple effect, as community members build skills in themselves and teach others how to do so as well.
“Resiliency is a skill that can be learned and developed. The goal is to have a community of people who have a good, productive balance system so they’re able to navigate stressful life in a healthy way,” Smoky’s community outreach director Anne DuPre Rogers said.
Smoky is planning to teach its community resiliency model, which helps individuals understand their nervous system and learn to track sensations connected to their own well-being, to ASU's counseling center staff later this month.
Smoky served 5,985 children and adults with mental illness who had either Medicaid or state-funded insurance, not private insurance, from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014, in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Watauga and Wilkes counties, according to Shelly Foreman, Smoky’s senior director of planning and public affairs.
“Mental health problems are so common across the lifespan, and we want to remove the fear around mental illness and instill hope that recovery can happen,” DuPre Rogers said.
“We want to educate communities about how common mental illness is and that it's treatable, recovery is likely in nearly all situations, especially when people get the help they need sooner, rather than later,” she said.
Michelle Tyler, Smoky's community education specialist, said that the goal is to “reach as many people as possible with the trainings that we offer.”
Serving 23 counties in Western North Carolina, Smoky Mountain Center is a public managed care organization that oversees Medicaid, state and local funding and offers health plans for individuals and families in need of mental health, substance use or intellectual and developmental disability services.
The Avery County Community Forum is at 2 p.m. May 27 at the Williams YMCA at 436 Hospital Drive in Newland.Contact Robin Winkler at (800) 893-6246, ext. 4433, for more information.
WRAP training is June 16-17 in the community room of Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation at 2491 U.S. 421 South in Boone. The training is free and open to the public. To register, contact Mary Lloyd at Mary.Lloyd@smokymountaincenter.com.
To learn more about getting treatment for help in a crisis, call Smoky's toll-free Access to Services line at (800) 849-6127. The line is open 24 hours a day and seven days a week.