Dorothy Yanez, Derry Dean and other volunteers with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Southern Arizona want to open minds to mental illness. They believe education and awareness are the key. Awareness is brought about by events such as the upcoming NAMIWalks.
"We see the ugly side of mental illness and don't see people living well with it, since that is not portrayed on TV," said Rebecca Garfunkel, communication director for the local affiliate of the national nonprofit.
"Mental illness is like any illness. People forget it is an actual brain disorder, not a character flaw - no one chooses to be this way. People can live well in recovery as long as they are on proper treatment, and NAMIWalks wants to bring awareness to that."
The grass-roots organization aims to provide education, advocacy and support to everyone affected by mental illness. It serves more than 25,000 Southern Arizonans a year through programs and outreach.
NAMI offers free support groups, workshops and courses - including many in Spanish - for patients and their families and friends.
Among them is Family-to-Family, a 12-week course that covers topics ranging from brain disorders and medication to navigating the system of public and private mental-health services.
The organization's Parents and Teachers as Allies helps school professionals recognize mental illness in children, while NAMI Basics offers education for parents and caregivers who have a child or adolescent living with mental illness.
Programs such as Family-to-Family have provided a lifeline for Yanez, whose son, Henry Yanez III, began displaying abnormal, uncontrolled anger at age 20 as a student at the University of Arizona.
Henry, now 28, was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He continues to struggle with the disease.
Yanez said education is vital since many parents ponder the "what ifs?" during the onset of their children's mental illness.
NAMI emphasizes self-care and teaches role-playing, communication and other tools to help families move forward and help their loved one integrate into society.
"They taught us that my husband and I were not the cause of our son's mental disorder and they taught us how to communicate with him … they helped us learn not to take things personally," she said.
Arizona has reduced or eliminated services to about 14,000 people since 2009, according to H. Clarke Romans, executive director of NAMI of Southern Arizona.
"The budget cuts directed at individuals with mental illnesses have had and are having a dramatic and devastating impact on those particular individuals, their families and friends.
"The direct loss of services and medications has had a very destabilizing effect on many people who were otherwise coping with their mental illnesses. … We are now rendering help in the most expensive form the community has to offer: emergency rooms, law enforcement interventions, incarcerations and death," Romans said.
Dean, a 15-year NAMI volunteer, has witnessed that impact. Her sons, ages 53 and 55, have severe mental illness and have experienced turnover in case management and reduced access to psychiatrists.
"If our boys didn't have family support, they would be out on the street, homeless," she said.
She is hopeful that NAMI's continued outreach will help improve public funding and bring insight to the plight of those who struggle with mental illness.
"When people have mental illness, they not only lose touch with reality, but they lose friends and often family. They lose their lives because they don't know how to make good decisions.
"They can't keep their jobs unless they have good medications and support. It is a very hard life and they really suffer."
If you go
• What: NAMIWalks
• When: Registration begins at 7:30 a.m. April 2. The program begins at 8 a.m. and the walk begins at 9 a.m.
• Where: Tucson Electric Park, 2500 E. Ajo Way.
• Cost: Free; donations are encouraged.
• Etc.: Festivities at the family-oriented event include a wheelchair-accessible 5K walk (modified distances are available), entertainment, music, food, face painting, information about health and mental illness. The event also will include a special tribute to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her aide Gabe Zimmerman. Giffords was among the 13 injured in the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson, and Zimmerman was among the six killed.
• To register: Go to www.nami.org/namiwalks/AZ/Tucson or call 622-5582. Donations can be made to NAMI of Southern Arizona, 6122 E. 22nd St., Tucson AZ 85711
Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at email@example.com