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We walk to help bring mental illness out of the shadows

May is National Mental Health Month. On Sunday, May 18, the Oregon Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) will host the 12th annual NAMI Northwest Walk in Portland to bring mental illness out from the shadows.

An estimated one in four Americans is affected by mental illness, directly or indirectly. The saddest way to be affected is by the suicide of a loved one or colleague. Nationally, there is one suicide every 13 minutes. In Oregon, more people die by suicide than from auto accidents, HIV/AIDS and homicide combined. In 2012, 700 Oregonians took their lives, approximately 200 more than those who died from breast cancer.

Mental illness is linked to changes in brain chemistry in the later teenage years, changes which occur normally but sometimes go wrong. Contributing causes may also include traumatic stress, genetics and physical injuries. Yet mental illness can be managed for a successful life, as exemplified by news anchor Jane Pauley, musician Billy Joel and Nobel Prize mathematician John Nash — all have publicly acknowledged living with mental illness.

If mental illness can be controlled, why do we have such a high suicide rate? One answer is that mental illness is still in the shadows, the subject of persistent stigma. Many people, especially teenagers and young adults, are deterred from speaking out. They fear that if they ask for help, their friends, employers and families may shun them.

Over 2,750 walkers came to the NAMI Walk last year from Oregon and southwest Washington to end that stigma. All of us have walked in the past or will walk this year. We walk because we have experienced mental illness and its impacts upon our families, neighbors and colleagues. We walk because we love someone who suffers from or has died from brain illnesses.

We walk to remember Jerry Gabay’s daughter, Susanna; Alissa’s uncle, Kimball; and friends Graham and Steve. We walk in thankfulness for their presence in our lives and in gratitude that our list of personal losses is no longer. We walk to show that people care about the struggles endured in experiencing an illness that is devastating and often stigmatized, as was cancer 50 years ago.

We walk to promote health, housing and human service policies that help those who are experiencing mental illness to lead productive lives that enrich our families and our communities. We walk to inform others of the community resources to support people who live with mental illness and their families. We walk to encourage families to seek greater information from providers to help those they love so much.

We walk to raise money for NAMI, an organization that does not charge for helping others. Most of all, we walk to bring mental illness out of the shadows and make people aware that there is help — and hope.

Please join us at noon Sunday, May 18, under the Hawthorne Bridge near the Vera Katz statue.

There is a bumper sticker that reads: “Reach out, check in, save a life.” Please take that phrase to heart. We are all in this together.

Jerry Gabay’s daughter took her life four years ago, just after her 21st birthday. He is a member of the NAMI Oregon Board of Directors, co-chair of Providence Health Systems Community Behavioral Health Collaborative and co-recipient of the 2013 Access Award given by the Oregon Psychiatric Association for achievement in improving access to mental health care. State Reps. Joe Gallegos, Alissa Keny-Guyer, Lew Frederick and Carolyn Tomei have all served on the House Human Services Committee. 



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