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Sunday, March 24, 2013
Eleven people sat around tables at the Cultural Arts for Excellence center on Cove Road on a recent morning. Diane Kelly, executive director of Mental Health America of Roanoke Valley, asked them to describe a cancer patient. She filled up half of a large notepad with words like brave, resilient and hopeful.
Then she asked the group to describe someone with a mental illness. There was a pause. "Crazy?" came the hesitant response. A mix of positive and negative words followed, but the side-by-side comparison underscored the stigma people with mental disorders face in our society.
"What I want you to see is people with these illnesses are much more alike than they are different," Kelly told them.
Misconceptions are prevalent, but not because mental illness is rare. Twenty-six percent of U.S. adults have a diagnosable mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Most of us have a relative, coworker, neighbor or friend with an anxiety disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or some other mental illness.
Instead, the stigma exists because we are reluctant to talk about the issue.
Kelly is doing her part to change that here in the Roanoke Valley. She has trained 235 social workers, people who serve in homeless shelters, caregivers for the elderly, probation officers, court officials and others since the fall of 2011 through the Mental Health First Aid program.
The training curriculum was created in Australia with the goal of educating people so they can identify the signs of mental illness and encourage early intervention. The program's mascot is a koala bear named ALGEE, which stands for assess, listen, give reassurance, encourage professional help and encourage self-help.
Kelly makes it clear she's not transforming her students into psychiatrists. It's as important for them to understand what they cannot do as it is to know what help is appropriate.
"If the problem or issue is way over your head, you're not going to try to fix it," she told the group.
She described an incident from her experience when she tried to talk a man out of taking a bus trip with his goldfish. Kelly attempted to rationalize with him, but succeeded only in convincing him he needed to haul gallons of water and boxes of fish food on the journey. While the incident might seem humorous, the man was dealing with the loss of a loved one. Kelly says she now knows it's better not to engage in an argument that only reinforces an individual's delusion.
Joy Sylvester-Johnson, CEO of the Rescue Mission, has participated in the training and sent mission workers to learn techniques for diffusing confrontations.
"We need to deal with people in such a way that we don't damage our relationship with them when they come back" after treatment, she said.
Joyce Earl, director of Roanoke County Social Services, sent her entire staff for training last year. The program was particularly helpful for eligibility workers and support staff who aren't professional social workers but encounter people with mental illnesses every day, she said.
State leaders have taken note of the program. Del. Joseph Yost, R-Blacksburg, made it a priority when he was appointed to a state task force on school safety.
"Education is one of the most important things we can do because you really start breaking down that barrier of stigma," he said.
The state budget includes $600,000 to train school personnel, health professionals, veteran groups and clergy. John Pezzoli, assistant commissioner for state behavioral health services, said details are being worked out, but the idea is to train the trainers, people like Kelly, who can return to their communities and continue the outreach.
Kelly herself is planning to obtain additional training on working with mentally ill young people in anticipation that she will see an increased demand for classes targeting that population.
"The more regular people who can be trained to say, 'That's a red flag,' we can prevent things from getting to a crisis," Sylvester-Johnson said.
Anyone interested in participating in the training program can call Mental Health America of Roanoke Valley at 540-344-0931.<
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