Did you know that almost 20 percent of Chicagoans are affected annually by mental illness?
The first step to healing such a large number of people is often finding the proper resources. NAMI of Greater Chicago, the local affiliate for the National Alliance of Mental Illness, is helping light the way. The organization provides information and referrals, as well as support, education, advocacy and active outreach.
“When serious mental illness comes along, most people are not equipped for it and don’t know what to do,” says Ryan Elliott, membership and volunteer coordinator for NAMI-GC. “We’re here to really get out there and encourage awareness and to let people know where they can go to find resources. We want people to know we’re here to help.”
A path to support
The organization, founded in 1979 by Shirley Starr and a group of like-minded parents, seeks to help families cope with mental illness. These families, searching for the means to understand their adult children’s serious mental illnesses, developed a support group that grew to be part of the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization.
Though not a direct service provider, NAMI-GC offers a wide range of resources free of charge, including open support groups, life-changing classes and easy-to-understand written information. The peer-led groups and classes are designed for both individuals with mentail illnesses and their family members, and they’re taught by consumers of mental health services and their families. This allows for a more empathetic perspective when compared to working with a doctor or social worker, Elliott says.
NAMI-GC has referred clients to local psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Yohanna for nearly 25 years. The associate professor and vice chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago Medicine also serves an auxiliary role, drummer in Chicago’s own T-Byrdz.
“I think I may be the only prescribing drummer in Chicago,” Yohanna laughs. “That’s what the band likes to say, at least.”
Yohanna and the T-Byrdz will be returning to NAMI-GC’s annual 5K for their fourth performance. His bandmates drop the “Dr.” prefix (“No respect,” Yohanna jokes), allowing him to transform from a lab-coated professional to a goofy drummer in a dad rock band.
His presence at NAMIWalks, in the capacity of both performer and physician, encourages patients and mental health consumers.
“Exposure and advocacy are two of the most important things we do,” he says. “Although we see people individually—and I believe you save the world one person at a time—you also can make wholesale changes with a large number of people. This is what NAMI does.”
Fighting the stigma
For prospective consumers of mental health services, the largest hurdle to mental wellness can be denial; a recent unsettling pattern of news stories, tagged with cries for mental health care reform, only intensify the stigma, associating mental illness with violence and hate.
“So many people out there only know about the extremes of mental illness,” Elliott says. “They’re not aware of the wide range of severity and symptoms. The benefits of mental health treatment are really out there for everybody. It’s like physical health, there are always things you can do to improve.”
- NAMIWalks Chicago, September 21, 3 p.m., Grant Park, Chicago
NAMIWalks, an annual 5K sponsored by NAMI-GC, raises awareness about the stigma of mental illness. Funds raised benefit NAMI-GC and its partner affiliates. This community event, entirely free and open to public, encourages conversation about the importance of caring for mental health. Last year’s walk drew nearly 1,500 individuals for face painting, bounce houses, giveaways and a spirited performance by Yohanna’s T-Byrdz. Walkers can register for the event individually or combine efforts to form a team.
- NAMI Cook County North Shore 5K Walk, October 5, Blue Star Memorial Woods Cook County Forest preserve, Glenview. Register here.
Make It Better Foundation is a proud media sponsor of these events.