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Eastside agencies offer support for people with mental illness
Growing up, Barb Thompson was seen as a shy and quiet kid.
She spent a lot of time in her room and while this made her parents think she was a “good” daughter who didn’t cause trouble, the truth was that Thompson was actually hiding in her room because she feared someone was going to kill her.
This is because she has bipolar disorder — a brain disorder also known as manic-depressive illness that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
Thompson — who is the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Eastside at the Together Center in Redmond — said as a child, nobody realized this about her.
As she got older, she experienced the depressive side of bipolar and while Thompson never really thought about suicide during that time, she said if she were in a life-or-death situation, she probably wouldn’t have tried to save herself.
But then one night in 2000, she woke up and she had a plan on how to take her life. Realizing the magnitude of her thoughts, Thompson immediately called her doctor and was admitted to Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue.
Thompson was initially diagnosed with depression and was prescribed medication accordingly, but it didn’t work. It took another few years for doctors to realize she had bipolar and was finally prescribed the correct medication.
She still experiences depressive moments, but Thompson said being on the correct medication has made a huge difference.
And now that she is in a more stable place, Thompson works at NAMI Eastside to help others with mental illness.
The nonprofit’s mission is to improve the quality of life of those affected by mental illness through advocacy, education and support.
Thompson added that almost everyone involved with NAMI Eastside has been affected by mental illness, which allows them to relate to and understand those who come in better.
NAMI Eastside programs — all of which are free — work with individuals living with a mental illness as well as their loved ones. In addition, the organization partners with other local agencies.
One of those agencies is HERO House in Bellevue. The organization — whose name stands for Hope, Empowerment, Relationships and Opportunities — provides support for adults recovering from mental illness working to reclaim their lives and rejoin the community.
Erica Horn, executive director of HERO House, said the organization began as a part of NAMI Eastside before it became its own nonprofit in 2005.
“We remain close partners,” she said.
Horn said HERO House focuses on the “what now” of mental illness, meaning working with members to figure out what to do with their time, including work. The organization’s signature program offers support at various levels for individuals looking to re-enter the workforce.
PARTNERING WITH THE LAW
In addition to other nonprofits, NAMI Eastside also works with local law enforcement to help with crisis intervention team (CIT) training.
Shari Francois, commander of investigations for the Redmond Police Department (RPD), said the training is 40 hours long and teaches law enforcement first responders how to approach a situation involving an individual with a possible mental illness.
“It’s amazing training,” she said, adding that the training is important because the majority of people they deal with who are in crisis are also dealing with mental illness.
Through the training, officers hear from people in various professions ranging from clinicians to attorneys — all of whom are familiar on the topic.
Francois said the training is not mandated, but many in the RPD have taken it — mostly first responders and first-level supervisors. She has taken it, as well, and said she has supervised scenes during which officers have utilized the CIT training.
“(It is) very effective and it’s been applied at several levels,” she said.
Francois, who is on the board of directors for NAMI Eastside, said working with local agencies such as NAMI Eastside is important and officers will often refer individuals to the nonprofits to get help.
“It can help save a life,” she said.
MENTAL ILLNESS IN THE MEDIA
Mental illness has been more prominent in the media as a result of recent school shootings throughout the country.
While people have always contacted NAMI Eastside for help and services, program coordinator Nina Weaver said now, “people are (more) willing to talk about it.”
Thompson said after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., they received calls from parents who saw their own children in 20-year-old Adam Lanza.
“That’s my son,” she said about what they would tell her. “My son is like that.”
Thompson said individuals with mental illness are actually more likely to be victims of violence, rather than the perpetrators. Only a small percentage commit crimes, but they are the ones that make the news.
More people are talking about mental illness, as well, after the death of comedian and actor Robin Williams, who committed suicide, according to the Marin County Sheriff’s Office.
Thompson, Weaver and Horn all said anyone can be affected by mental illness and that it does not discriminate.
“He appeared to have everything anyone could ask for, but mental illness doesn’t discriminate by age, race, sexual orientation or socioeconomic background,” Thompson said about Williams.
She added that more than 6 million men in the United States have at least one episode of major depression each year. Men in particular, she said, do not usually display observable symptoms and that depression may actually cause men to suppress their feelings and “tough it out” or self-medicate their depressive feelings using alcohol or drugs.
While Williams spoke openly about his battles with addiction, his battles with depression were not well known.
Horn and Thompson said they hope Williams’ death will open up a dialogue, raise awareness and get more people talking about mental illness.
“This is a disease, just like diabetes and heart disease,” Thompson said.