Ending the stigma. That is what Jesse Levine and Cole Swanson, volunteers at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Eastside are trying to do.
On a Wednesday morning, the two volunteers were presenting to a freshmen health class at Redmond High School. The NAMI Eastside presentation they were using was called, Ending the Silence (ETS). The presentation helps students learn about the warning signs of mental health conditions and what to do if loved ones, or they themselves, show symptoms. Both volunteers shared their personal stories and answered student questions.
According to Michele Meaker, NAMI Eastside director, stigma is the biggest barrier that people with mental illness face.
“[People] don’t want to accept that there might be something wrong,” she said. “The more we talk about it, the more it will become accepted, there will be less stigma, and people will be able to seek help.”
According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), one in five adults experiences mental illness each year, one in 25 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year, and one in six youth — ages 6 to 17 — experience a mental health disorder each year. In 2018, it was reported that 43.3 percent of adults and 50.6 percent of youth with mental illness received treatment in 2016.
For Swanson, 23, receiving treatment for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was relieving.
Growing up, Swanson said it was frustrating not knowing what was wrong with him. School was hard, he could’t focus, and it was difficult to do things.
“I felt more of an outsider because I assumed everyone else was fine and I wasn’t,” he said. “I felt distant from everything. It was frustrating because I didn’t know why I couldn’t preform as well as other students.”
Swanson was diagnosed with ADHD at age 22.
“It was nice to know it was confirmed,” Swanson said about his diagnosis. “It was also frustrating because I was hoping I could have found that out before… now I know there’s a reason why I’m feeling what I feel.”
With his recent diagnosis, Swanson said he felt like he had something to say. He wanted to share his experience and help kids realize that who they are is OK.
“Mental health is something that everyone has to work on” he said. “You don’t have to be in a bad place or have a mental health illness, but it’s something that everyone should recognize… people want to stop stigmatizing mental health, and I think its about doing something rather than just talking about it.”
The Issaquah native now lives in Bothell and graduated from Washington State University. Swanson has been volunteering with NAMI since 2018.
NAMI Eastside is a grassroots nonprofit organization, a part of the national NAMI organization, and affiliate of NAMI Washington. At NAMI Eastside, their mission is to improve the quality of life of those affected by mental illness through advocacy, education and support.
NAMI Eastside educates Eastside communities by offering a range of mental health education classes and presentations like ETS. Their programs include monthly seminars, quarterly classes, and scheduled presentations in schools, with law enforcement and at in-patient facilities. Classes include a family-to-family, peer-to-peer class, and a wellness recovery action plan. NAMI presentations include In Our Own Voice and ETS, which is presented in various Eastside schools. Seminars include a Mental Health First Aid program and Friends and Family class.
The nonprofit also offers various mental health support groups that offer insight, emotional support and successful strategies for coping with everyday challenges. Support groups include peer support, family support and spirituality support groups. All support groups are free and do not require insurance. They are also held on a drop-in basis with no required length of participation.
All mental health support groups are led by nationally-certified facilitators with lived experience of mental illness. NAMI support groups are held in Redmond, Bellevue, Bothell, Woodinville, Issaquah and Sammmish.
NAMI Eastside trains and educates volunteers like Swanson and Levine. It’s been over 10 years since Levine, 34, received his first training.
“It was probably one of the best moments in my life to be able to accept my illness,” Levine said. “For many years I wasn’t able to accept my illness. [At NAMI], I was able to express how I felt and I was able to be open with people.”
Levine was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in his early 20s. At a young age, Levine said he was diagnosed with ADHD, then with depression and anxiety, and by 18 he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“I wouldn’t change anything about my illness,” he said. “It’s who I am. It’s what I am. I say, ‘I’m Jesse and I’m recovering from schizoaffective disorder.’ It’s an ongoing process and it’s a life-long journey.”
According to Levine, volunteering at NAMI Eastside and receiving training from the organization has empowered him. He said it makes him feel like he is worth something.
“Being able to tell my story is one of the most powerful things that I can do,” he said. “I don’t see this as my disability. I see this as my ability.”
With NAMI Eastside, Levine said his goal is to educate, inform, and share his experience with other people.
“I want to show them that they are not alone and that there is hope,” he said.
Levine currently lives in Redmond with his wife and holds a full-time job.
NAMI-Eastside is located in the Together Center, at 16225 NE 87th St., Suite A-9 in Redmond.
To learn more about NAMI Eastside, go online to www.nami-eastside.org.
To support NAMI Eastside go online to www.givingtuesday.org.