By B.C. Manion
Barely a day goes by without a headline revealing a violent act by someone who is mentally ill.
Those high-profile events capture the public’s attention.
But scant attention is paid to the day-to-day burdens carried by those connected to people who are mentally ill.
That’s where a support group in Wesley Chapel comes in. It aims to help people who have relatives or friends afflicted by some type of mental illness.
The first battle is eliminating the stigma mental illness has in society today, said Pat Scimone-Almasy, who leads the Wesley Chapel group.
People are ashamed to acknowledge their husband or wife, brother or sister, aunt or uncle, mother or father, child or friend is mentally ill, Scimone-Almasy said.
The support group tries to help its members by offering emotional support and practical help. It follows guidelines established by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), she said.
That national group seeks to destroy stereotypes and educate people about various mental illnesses and to help loved ones find places to turn for help.
NAMI’s website offers this simple definition: “A mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.”
Serious forms of mental illness include depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.
Myths abound about mental illness, Scimone-Almasy said. The stigmas hinder actions that could help those who are indirectly affected, she added.
“No one wants to talk about it,” she said.
If the stigma was removed, people would come forward and acknowledge they have a mental illness, or are connected to someone who does and more would be done to help, Scimone-Almasy said.
The group in Wesley Chapel offers a safe and completely confidential space to seek information, share experiences or simply vent, Scimone-Almasy said.
“If they are angry and want to say something that may be (viewed as) horrific to someone else, it may be of benefit to them,” the Wesley Chapel woman said.
Everyone who attends the meeting is treated with dignity and respect, Scimone-Almasy said. Members gather to discuss “here and now” issues.
“Two of the women expressed the fact their marriage was on the rocks because of their children,” Scimone-Almasy said. A couple attending the meeting shared some of the strategies they use to help keep their marriage intact.
Three women came to one meeting seeking advice about how to help their mother, who is a hoarder. They told the group the woman’s home had boxes from floor to ceiling.
Those women left with information about home health care and about an attorney who may help them intervene on their mother’s behalf, Scimone-Almasy said.
Children with mental illness are often labeled as having behavior problems when they need help, Scimone-Almasy said.
She understands what it is like to have family members who are mentally ill.
She had two brothers. One overdosed and died. The other died after being shot in 2010 by police in Suffolk County, New York. He was bipolar and was holding an unloaded antique rifle at the time he was shot, she said.
Scimone-Almasy said Pasco County is lucky because Sheriff Chris Nocco sets aside a week twice a year to educate his staff about mental illness. The training helps them be more effective in assessing behavior and getting help for those who are mentally ill, she said.
The crisis intervention training has resulted in having officers who can respond immediately to crisis calls on an ongoing basis. It has also established a partnership with mental health consumers, health providers and NAMI, Scimone-Almasy said.
This alliance helps achieve a more intelligent, understandable and safe approach to crisis events, she said.
Scimone-Almasy, who gives presentations during the training sessions, believes her brother would still be alive if the Suffolk County police had received similar training.
Besides being involved in the training programs offered by the sheriff’s office, Scimone-Almasy does presentations for community organizations to help bust mental illness stigmas.
She wants to also reach out to schools and clergy to increase understanding of the issues. She is especially interested in talking to clergy about the need to speak openly about mental illness and about the need to tend to those who are directly and indirectly affected.
Scimone-Almasy has also begun working to build a library of resource materials to lend to people attending the group sessions, to help them develop deeper knowledge of mental illness issues and to help them build better coping skills.
For more information about mental illness, visit NAMI.org and NAMIPasco.org.
Help is available
The Wesley Chapel support group meets on the first and third Tuesday of each month, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. It meets at the Branch of Christ Ministries, 23604 SR 54. For more information, call Pat Scimone-Almasy at (813) 918-3205 or email her at .
Judge Steven Leifman will be the keynote speaker at the sixth annual NAMI Pasco County Mental Illness Awareness Education and Awards Banquet. The event is from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Oct. 7 at Spartan Manor in New Port Richey. Singer and songwriter Mindy Simmons will present a musical tribute to Peggy Lee. The event is open to the public and tickets are available until Sept. 20 by calling (727) 992-9653.
NAMI notes these important facts to keep in mind about mental illness and recovery:
—Mental illnesses cannot be overcome through will power and are not related to a person’s character, intelligence, racial or ethnic background or income.
—Mental illness falls along a continuum of severity.
—Even though mental illness is widespread, the main burden is concentrated in a much smaller proportion. About one in 17 Americans lives with a serious mental illness.
—Without treatment, the consequences of mental illness for the individual and society are staggering: unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and wasted lives.
—The best treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective; between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments and supports.
—Early identification and treatment is vital. Ensuring access to the treatment and recovery supports that are proven effective, recovery is accelerated and further harm related to the course of illness is minimized.
—Stigma erodes confidence that mental disorders are real, treatable health conditions.