Ann Akland is a mental health advocate and a prominent figure in the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
Q: You and your husband, Gerry, have worked as advocates for the mentally ill and are leaders in the Wake County chapters of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). Your story for involvement is personal – could you share it?
A: Our daughter, now in her 30s, has severe mental illness. In trying to get help for her over the years, we have seen firsthand how the system of care for people with mental illness was lacking. It is hard for those who have mental illness to get help, and it is especially hard if you don’t have family support, or you don’t have insurance, and it is especially hard if you have the severest forms of mental illness. Gerry and I are a team, and one of the things we do as a family is to help other families.
Q: Don’t you offer classes for families dealing with mental illness?
A: We have a 12-week class called Family-to-Family. We help family members so they can be a better support if they have someone in their family with mental illness. We go over the structure of the brain, how the chemicals in the body work, what they can do to help their family member, and what to do when you are in a crisis mode. We have also taught classes on dealing with Bipolar 1 disorder, and on borderline personality disorder.
Q: Are there classes in eastern Wake?
A: In the past, my husband and I led classes at Rex Wellness in Knightdale, and there were support groups that met at Knightdale Baptist, but there is not anything scheduled now. There is a group that meets in east Raleigh, which is close by. Also, you can find more information about nearby help at www.nami-wake.org.
Q: Years ago, having a mental illness came with such a huge stigma. People would be embarrassed to get help or family members would not want to ask for help. Do you see the image of mental illness getting better? Are services for mental illness getting better?
A: Well, I think people are more aware that mental illnesses do exist. You see so many commercials on TV now for anti-depressants. I think there is more therapy out there to help people cope – but unfortunately, I am sorry to say, in other ways things have not gotten better. The public system has gotten worse. North Carolina emptied their state psychiatric hospitals. The money was then supposed to be directed to more community services for the mentally ill – people were going to go into homes and help those who are mentally ill. That was then turned over to private providers, who then got greedy. The state cut millions from its budget that in years past was allocated for mental health services. There is also constant reorganization, and I don’t see it improving anytime soon. Unfortunately, it has really gotten to the point that those who need help can’t get it. They then get desperate and go to hospital emergency rooms – but many of those don’t have enough psychiatric beds. Then you have many who need help that end up in prisons and jails, and not really through any fault of their own. You have officers who encounter those with mental illness, and because of what is going on – they may be schizophrenic and hearing voices, they are confused – they are not able to understand or follow an officer’s commands. Then they might become combative and end up being charged with assault. They get thrown in jail, and then it is impossible for them to get out. It is a sad system.
Q: What about the stigma? Have attitudes improved there?
A: The biggest thing is that people are just embarrassed. Your brain is you. It is the essence of who you are – and then you get to the point where you can’t trust your own thoughts. It is an organ, just like the heart, and things can go wrong. Though you may be suffering from a mental illness and you are on medication and have it under control, a lot of people won’t reveal they are getting help for that for fear of not getting a job or losing their job. Also, when grandma gets older and she gets Alzheimer’s, people do not judge grandma, but it is still something wrong with the brain. With schizophrenia, you do not have the same understanding or empathy. You don’t have people bringing over casseroles when you come home from the psych hospital.
Q: Is there a ray of hope? What about your daughter? Has she improved?
A: My daughter is disabled, and she continues to struggle, but she lives on her own now. My mother, who lived across the street from us, passed away, and (our daughter) was able to move into her home so we still keep a close eye on her. If things get bad, she comes over here to stay for a while. But she can drive, so she has a little freedom, and this makes her feel good.
Correspondent Dena Coward