Dottie Bailey no longer calls it a stigma. Instead, she views the opinions held by some toward those with mental illness as simple prejudice.
Bailey, a certified peer specialist, advocates locally for mental health awareness by speaking with groups and helping patients. She also founded a Mental Health Alert Wristbands initiative that helps law enforcement quickly identify people who suffer from a mental illness.
Education and awareness can reduce the stigma, Bailey said. Mental Illness Awareness Week, which is taking place through Saturday, provides an opportunity to have those conversations.
But Bailey said the work to tear down the stigma will take more than a week.
“It’s on all of us as a community to speak out,” she said. “… Mental illness is the most stigmatized medical diagnosis there is. We have a chemical imbalance in our brain, just like someone may have a heart defect or diabetes.”
Mental Illness Awareness Week, taking place nationwide, offers an opportunity to educate people about mental health and to reduce the stigma, said Mark Taylor, director at Gateway Behavioral Health Services in Brunswick. It’s also a chance to bring attention to the growing opioid epidemic facing the country.
“It doesn’t do us any good to raise awareness if we don’t do something about the stigma,” Taylor said. “That is a barrier.”
Gateway hosted an event earlier this week to raise awareness of the opioid crisis. The center’s staff put out 142 flags to represent the number of people who die from overdose every day in Georgia.
Gateway offers mental health and substance abuse treatment, a behavioral health crisis center — at which about 94 percent of patients are uninsured — and other outpatient services.
The Golden Isles chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness is another local resource. NAMI offers support groups to those with mental illness and their family members. The group also hosts a speaker event once a month to discuss mental health issues.
Carolyn Tinkham, president of NAMI Golden Isles, said she hopes Mental Illness Awareness Week will help community members get connected to local resources.
“Mental illness is a brain disorder. It’s a medical condition,” she said. “It’s treatable with medication and psycho-therapy, and people do recover.”
Bailey was diagnosed with a mental illness 29 years ago. She’s reached a place in her life where she can hold down a job and keep things stable. But, she said, many with mental illness have not reached that point.
Stigmas against mental illness create significant barriers, she said, and communities continue to avoid the conversations that need to be held.
Bailey was inspired to create the Mental Health Alert Wristbands while working with a law enforcement crisis intervention team. The police officers requested she find some way to identify individuals with mental illness.
“We’ve had so many instances where people who have mental illness have been killed because our behavior will mimic that of a person who is just out of control,” she said. “We become aggressive and assertive and forceful and powerful.”
The navy and silver bracelets allow police officers to distinguish people who have mental illness from those without and to respond accordingly.
“I wanted it to be something that law enforcement can recognize on site,” Bailey said.
The bracelets are now in 32 states and parts of Canada. Bracelets can be purchased for $2 online at mentalhealthalertwristbands.com.
There’s a lot more to be done, though, and Bailey hopes to see the conversation about mental health awareness continue well past Saturday.
“There is no shame in having a mental illness,” she said.
Those interested in learning more about NAMI Golden Isles can do so at namigoldenisles.com
And those in a crisis situation can call the 24/7 Georgia Crisis and Access hotline, which will connect callers to trained counselors. The number is 800-715-4225.