On Sunday, about 1,500 people turned out for the Maryland NAMI Walk at Centennial Park. Some of the funds generated come back to local NAMI chapters in Maryland, and some go to the national organization to encourage legislative action on mental health issues.
"One of the big advocacy issues is mental health insurance parity," said Helsel. "You may have a $15 co-pay for a visit to a medical doctor, and yet going to the psychiatrist is only covered at 50 percent -- and that's with a generous insurance package."
Helsel points out that the World Health Organization identified mental health issues as the leading cause of disability worldwide. She also indicates that these issues are a key factor in drug and alcohol abuse. "People are using them to self-medicate," said Helsel.
A former teacher and guidance counselor, Helsel said she often saw children with signs of mental illness, and recommended that parents take them for evaluation.
"I said those words, but I didn't know the depth of what it meant to a family," she said.
NAMI's family-to-family course is a free 12-week educational seminar on mental illness for families.
"I hear things like, `it made me realize I'm not a bad parent,' or `there was nothing we could do to prevent it [mental illness],'" she said.
From 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Homewood School, 10914 Route 108 in Ellicott City, NAMI is conducting a free educational seminar on mental health and wellness for parents of school-age children in Howard County.
One of the parents who will answer questions is Rita Daugherty, who heads a support group for parents or caregivers of children with mental illness. When she discovered that her son, Brian, had a brain disorder, she looked for a support group dealing specifically with children. There was none. With NAMI's help, she attended training and started one.
"He [Brian] has the potential -- we want him to reach that potential," she said.
Her husband, Jerry, says that NAMI fills in a huge gap in the health care system.
"Not everybody has the resources or time or connections [to get mental health information]," he said. "You tend to feel like you're on an island."
Rita said the NAMI support group provides a forum where parents or caregivers can listen supportively, offer suggestions and share hope.
"We've `been there,'" she said.
Brian, 15, who is living with a dual diagnosis of bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder with learning disabilities, speaks about his involvement with NAMI.
"My mom has told me about what she's learned in workshops, and I've given feedback," he said. He echoes the feeling of isolation mentioned by his father, referring to some years of his schooling as being in a "torture chamber," experiencing "all manner of teasing."
Of interacting with other people living with mental illness, Brian said, "That's meant the world to me. I'm finally connecting with people. I've already been invited to two birthday parties, and that's a personal record."
Walking beside Brian in Centennial Park last weekend, we talked. Like any other teenager, he complained about the length of the walk, adding that the conversation was a good distraction. He took out a bag of candy and handed me a piece.
I couldn't help but wish it was a magic pill -- not to cure his illness, but to remove the stigma surrounding it. That's the more insidious disease.
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