NAMI walk in Concord raises awareness for mental illness

Last modified: 10/7/2014 12:20:02 AM
Ed Kirby carried a skunk on New Hampshire Hospital grounds yesterday.

His son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder more than 30 years ago. Kirby’s not afraid to talk about it, but if he goes on about mental illness at a party, he said, he gets about the same reaction as that animal so known for its fetid odor.

When hundreds gathered at the hospital yesterday for a National Alliance on Mental Illness walk designed to change the way people talk and think about mental illness, naturally, Beau was in attendance.

He is the small, stuffed mascot of the NAMI Army, a well-represented group easily identified by their matching olive green T-shirts.

“If you notice, Beau is a skunk,” Kirby said. “He’s cute, but he’s a skunk.

“Every time we go someplace to a gathering, we talk mental illness and we end up being the skunk at the party because nobody wants to talk about mental illness. . . . Therefore, we chose to have a skunk as our mascot because it’s important to have a skunk at every party.”

The NAMIWalks logo is a shoe crushing the word “stigma.” The hope behind the event is that, with awareness, people won’t be afraid to talk about mental illness, because communication is vitally important to recovery.

Volunteer Norma MacKinley-Smith said one of NAMI’s important tasks is working with families to ensure they have a good understanding of what mental illness is, so they can be a support group for the affected person.

Without support, the ill person will often abandon therapy, abandon medication and abandon their hope for recovery, she said.

Before Kirby was a facilitator for NAMI support groups, he learned from NAMI how to be a better parent and supporter of his son.

“I used to blame him for what he was doing, I was angry with him, fighting with him because he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do,” Kirby said.

“When they’re in crisis, they almost become uncontrollable. They pick on siblings, they pick on mom and dad. . . . Mental illness highjacks your mind. It prevents you from making logical, reasonable decisions.”

Besides the skunk, Kirby also carried a small, neon yellow sign that read “Recovery from mental illness is possible.”

“I really believe that,” he said. Kirby went on to sit on the board of the Greater Nashua Mental Health Center.

And his son, now 52, has overcome his depression to hold down a job, an apartment and a car.

Although Kirby adamantly believes recovery is possible, he said it’s impossible for a person with mental illness to recover alone.

MacKinley-Smith added that many who try end up in the criminal justice system “because their illness causes them to lose their judgment and act impulsively in ways they would not otherwise.” She said the state is building systems in which today many people receive treatment that’s more appropriate than incarceration.

Kirby said his son will need medication and therapy for the rest of his life, “but he’s living a very productive, happy life.”

The unique part of mental illness, and what makes it so disruptive, is that the person doesn’t realize he or she is ill, Kirby said.

“When your heart doesn’t work, what tells you your heart doesn’t work? Your brain. If you brain doesn’t work, what’s it going to do?”

The last thing a mentally ill person will be thinking about is going to see a doctor, he said.

“He’s going to be thinking, ‘How can I make this go away? Well, if I kill myself it’ll go away, if I get drunk or smoke or whatever’ ” it will go away.

That’s where organizations like NAMI come in. Kirby said that in Nashua, organizers hold two support group meetings a month in a classroom used by the St. Joseph School of Nursing.

Sylvia Durette, an instructor from that program, said Kirby came to talk to her students one day, and from that talk nursing students started sitting in on support group meetings where they see the reality of mental illness outside the context of a book.

Dozens of nursing students turned out yesterday in their NAMI Army T-shirts.

“This is a clinical day for the nursing students,” Durette said. “They learn so much about values and being nice to people and understanding the lived experience of mental illness,” she said.

Nationally, NAMIWalks raised more than $10 million for support and advocacy last year.

Tricia Ellis is on the committee that organized New Hampshire’s version of the walk. Her job was to run the raffle and silent auction, to which local businesses donated 50 items or baskets.

Since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Ellis said NAMI has been “like a family” to her.

“Since I’ve met them, I’ve grown so much and gained so much self-esteem,” she said. “Before I was always kind of like hiding in the shadows because I had a mental illness. I was embarrassed. With NAMI I feel that I don’t have to hide.”

She said it’s “such a relief to come here and see all these people together and know that they’re all in support of mental health.”

“And it didn’t rain! Thank God – last year it was pouring,” she said.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or or on Twitter @NickBReid.)

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