Springtime in the Sonoran Desert is the perfect time to step out and support local nonprofits, literally and figuratively.
Whether you prefer to walk to support those with multiple sclerosis (MS) or stride to promote awareness about mental illness, there is ample opportunity to take up a cause when you take it outside.
“We are hoping for a great turnout at the 2014 NAMIWalks with our honorary chairs Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords. … They have lent their names and, barring any change in their schedules, they hope to be there. We are hoping this will increase attendance and general community awareness about mental illness,” said H. Clarke Romans, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Southern Arizona executive director.
About 100,000 people in Pima County are living with serious disorders such as bipolar disease, schizophrenia or major clinical depression; estimates increase to 150,000 when including those with generalized anxiety disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorders.
About two-thirds of those living with serious mental illness — now considered “biological brain disorders” since they are due to pre-existing structural defects in the brain — will go undiagnosed in their lifetimes, Romans said.
“The single biggest barrier to diagnosis is stigma, and that is a lot of people to be living with serious disorders without treatment. The consequence of not receiving treatment is that people with serious mental illness in Arizona die 32 years younger than their non-mentally-ill counterparts,” he said.
“Just imagine if any other illness — such as the plague — had this kind of impact. It is a huge public health problem that is invisible.”
NAMI of Southern Arizona seeks to make people aware of its offerings of education, information, classes, public awareness presentations and other services, not only for those living with mental illness, but for their families and friends.
It also offers 12 support groups throughout Tucson and Green Valley in both English and Spanish that meet about 200 times a year, and it runs a crisis and information line (622-5582) that operates from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. A 24-hour community crisis line is available at 622-6000.
In January, NAMI launched Ending the Silence, an outreach presentation designed to help teenagers recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness.
Another new project, the Mental Health Safe Space Education Program, is a collaborative effort with the Fund for Civility and Respect and the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona that offers outreach to businesses and other organizations and employees about appropriate response in the event of a mental-health crisis in a public place or workplace.
“Often people see behaviors that frighten them, but they don’t know what to do. This program helps them to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and gives them resources to reach out to that will lead to treatment instead of incarceration or help instead of banishment,” Romans said.
In light of its community-centered philosophy, NAMIWalks manager Christina Bickelmann hopes Tucsonans will come out in full force to support the fundraiser, which is at 50 percent of its $150,000 goal.
“I have been quite impressed with NAMI’s enthusiasm and commitment to making people think about mental illness in a different way. It is not something you hide from or pretend isn’t there — you actually embrace it and try to get people into treatment,” she said.
Supporting local nonprofits through walks and fundraisers often provides little-known benefits for the community, according to Crystal Blickfeldt, chairwoman of Walk MS and the community development manager of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Tucson chapter.
“When I stepped into this position, I thought I knew pretty much everything about this organization, but I was wrong,” Blickfeldt said.
“I didn’t know they could give financial assistance to people with MS who are struggling — they can even help you pay your electrical bill — and I didn’t know they have resources available to help you find a neurologist or any kind of doctor you need.”
Blickfeldt, who has lived with the chronic autoimmune disease for nine years, said there is a 1-800-Fight-MS resource line with a wealth of information that she didn’t know existed before she joined the organization.
She also was gratified to learn about lifestyle programs such as “Cognifit” and “Everyday Matters” that are designed to help those living with MS improve well-being, and exercise programs such as chair yoga and “Cool in the Pool,” which provides pool exercise several times weekly during the summer to those with the disease.
The Arizona chapter also offers a range of programs for the newly diagnosed: a lending library, educational workshops, a teleconference series and six local support groups.
“These programs show people that there is life after you get through diagnosis with MS — it is OK,” she said.