In their first panel on Monday, the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Massachusetts sought to showcase their plans to improve the way mental illness is viewed and treated in society.
NAMI Mass. invited speakers to the State House for their annual Advocacy Day to advocate for more awareness of mental health illnesses and to seek an increase in funds for treatment.
“We’re the ones who have to come knocking on the doors of our legislators,” said Steve Rosenfeld, board president of NAMI Mass. “If we send the message [to improve mental illness treatment], they will do the right thing. It’s our responsibility to send that message.”
Laurie Martinelli, executive director of NAMI Mass., moderated the panel, which featured speakers including Massachusetts Attorney Gen. Martha Coakley, Massachusetts Sen. Brian Joyce of Milton and Court Administrator Harry Spence.
“There are people here with loved ones who are mentally ill,” Martinelli said. “There are people present who are mentally ill. We’re here to raise awareness about the stigma that exists in our country about mental illness.”
Spence proposed his plan for mental health courthouses in Massachusetts, which would almost double the number of courthouses from 26 to 50 in the next three years.
Coakley opened her speech with a personal connection to mental illness. She said her brother had a normal childhood, but was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. He eventually committed suicide at 33.
“I believe that in 2014, mental illness should be treated the same way we treat diabetes or asthma,” she said. “This is a time for our voices to be heard, as we change the way we look at mental illness in our communities.”
The panel concluded with Eliza Williamson, who has a history of mental illness and trains others to recover by speaking with them about their conditions.
She recalled her long, painful history of struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, which led her to attempt suicide in 2001. She recovered by a combination of doing therapy and sharing her story. She said she loves her life with her wife and two dogs.
Abby Brengle, 22, of Boston and worker for Massachusetts Sen. Joan Lovely, said she would like to see more money go toward supporting those with mental illnesses.
“There’s a stigma that surrounds the whole thing, but mental illness is not black and white, and should not be discriminated against,” she said. “We want people to visit their state legislators and act as proponents for this. It can make a big difference.”
Rachel MacDonald, 19, an intern for Massachusetts Rep. Diana DiZoglio, said more education about mental health could lead to more funding.
“The stereotype surrounding mental health issues is a major problem,” she said. “We need to fight this internally. Education about mental illness is key to helping get rid of [public] preconceptions.”
Mary Beth Ogulewicz, of Springfield, said her own experience with mental illness and the criminal justice system. She worked as a criminal prosecutor in Hampden County for 18 years and teaches undergraduate criminal justice courses at Bay Path College.
“Most mental wards were deinstitutionalized in the 1970s,” she said. “Since then, those inmates that need treatment for mental illness are not receiving the care they desperately need. It’s all about education and learning about mental illness. The more we understand it, the less of a stigma there is to it.”
Ogulewicz said mental conditions are like a spectrum, with varying degrees of severity.
“That’s what I try to instill in my students,” she said. “Your roommate, your friend, they could be mentally ill and just afraid to tell you. These people are absolutely normal, and we just need to learn about their needs so that we can better meet them.”