RIO RANCHO, N.M. — What do Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Jane Pauley, Buzz Aldrin, Isaac Newton and Terry Bradshaw have in common?
Answer: They all battle or have battled mental illness.
“Those are people with mental illness who enhance our lives,” said Marilyn Salzman, a former Rio Rancho city councilor who copes with depression and bouts of anxiety herself and hopes, in her role with the local National Alliance on Mental Illness office, to help others do likewise.
NAMI, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, is dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
It is estimated that one in four adults in the U.S. experiences a mental health disorder in a given year, and one in 17 lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, depression or a bipolar disorder. Additionally, about one in 10 children lives with a serious mental or emotional disorder.
“(These are) people you work with and go to church with and never know they’re suffering from mental illness,” said Salzman, who is president of NAMI Westside.
“It’s pervasive in society because it actually starts in childhood and the symptoms are overlooked,” she said. “The signs are there, but no father or mother wants to admit there is anything wrong with their child.
“Our mantra is you never give up hope,” Salzman said. “They’re at opposite ends, but the triggers are different.”
Mental illness, she said, “boils down to getting the correct diagnosis and correct medication — there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Salzman said.
NAMI Westside, 4011 Barbara Loop, Suite 203, does its best to address those issues. It has been in existence for 33 years; Salzman has been involved as a volunteer for the last six years. She enjoys the 10-12 hours she puts in every week, but wishes the group had some government funding to work with.
Lately, there have been countless incidents involving shootings, often perpetrated by someone deemed mentally ill and winding up with the shooter being shot and killed by police. In recent months, Albuquerque police have been involved in several such incidents.
After the May 23 tragedy in Santa Barbara, in which six people were killed before the perpetrator, Elliot Rodger, took his own life, Mary Giliberti, executive director of NAMI, issued the following statement: “Clear facts in tragedies often emerge slowly. It is especially important not to speculate about diagnoses through the news media or rush to judgment about what went wrong. However, it does seem clear that Mr. Rodger received some mental health treatment and at least one welfare check by police.
“When tragedies occur, it often is because something in the mental health care system went terribly wrong. It is important to closely examine each case and determine what contributed to the tragedy,” she said. “… No matter how compassionate or well -trained police officers are, they are not mental health professionals. It is not fair to place them in that role.”
On June 5, Seattle police took Aaron Ybarra, a 20-something with a history of mental illness, into custody in connection with a shooting rampage, which left one man dead. The shooter entered Seattle Pacific University with a shotgun, hoping to kill as many people as he could; when he paused to reload, he was pepper-sprayed and subdued. Ybarra was not a student at the school and no motive is yet known, though his lawyer said he “suffers from delusions.”
Salzman doesn’t want to see a tragedy strike the City of Vision, although no place seems exempt these days, thus the help available through her office, funded by the annual NAMI walk each May.
“Hopefully, people will call us and ask us how we can help them,” Salzman said. “They have to come to us. We can’t go to them.”
NAMI Westside offers free support: A connection recovery support group for adults living with mental illness, run by people living with a mental illness; and a family support group, for family, friends and caregivers of the mentally ill.
Gilberti says families and communities want to know how to prevent future tragedies.
Basic steps include:
• Fill the gaps in our community mental health care systems. That includes the creation and promotion of crisis services and partnerships between mental health professionals and all first responders.
• Improve communications between mental health professionals, individuals receiving care and their families. Mental health privacy is important, but health care privacy laws should not stand in the way of coordinated information and action in a crisis.
• Talk about it — within families as well as with teachers, clergy, students and community leaders. “Encourage conversation about mental health, about what we are experiencing and what we can do to help. By doing so, we create and promote the space for open and honest dialogue that saves lives,” Gilberti said.
Ron Honberg, national director of policy and legal affairs for NAMI, says studies show that most people with mental illness are no more violent than anyone else, although a small portion of people with serious mental illness may need to be committed to a hospital against their will because they don’t recognize that they’re ill.
“The point I want to make is that mental illness is the Rodney Dangerfield of all illnesses — we get no respect,” Salzman said. “NAMI is here to advocate and educate. Until it hits home, you have no clue.”
For more information on NAMI Westside, go to NAMI.org, call 990-2292 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.