Redefining Mental Health

By Nikki Sue Alston

“Underneath this veneer of slightly crazy and mildly socially retarded, I'm a complete disaster.” - Rainbow Rowell (not saying you are)

In the past, I was not so open about my mental health problems, hiding it away from the world like some redheaded stepchild. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and afraid of being “crazy”. Today, I proudly parade that “crazy”* down the street; confident of who I am - flaws and all - they do not  define me.

I have a depression and anxiety disorder. Before seeking treatment, I wouldn't dare enter a restaurant if there were many cars in the parking lot. I couldn’t go out and socialize with friends, or try anything new. I was a homebody against my will, an emotional roller coaster; always highs and lows with no happy medium. Looking back, I don’t know how I kept my shit together for as long as I did. Growing up, I had always been an anxious child, but my anxiety worsened with age. My beau (man-friend) was the one who really encouraged me seek a medical professional about my problems. I had been through 3 therapists, and I knew it was time to get medicated.

My medication brings me down a few notches, allowing me to think more rationally. Things that would normally trigger days of hiding in my house, or falling behind my work no longer affect me. I actually enjoy meeting people. In the beginning, I was afraid to tell my family and friends I started taking medication. I was afraid for anyone to find out, and tell me to ‘get over it’ or ‘just suck it up’. Only after opening up to a close friend, did I become aware of how common mental illness actually is. The best piece of advice or encouragement I ever received came from my dad. He told me, “If you have a problem with your heart you go to the doctor, so why would your brain be any different”? That hit home, and seems like it should have been an obvious statement. Why should I, or anyone else, feel ashamed for taking care of any problem they have? I decided to do some investigating to understand why there is a stigma attached to mental illness.

*Not in a "will-cut-you" kind of way. 

Facts to Consider

In our 5-parish area, over 73,000 people are living with a mental illness. These conditions affect nearly everyone, directly or indirectly.

1 in 4 adults, nearly 60 million Americans, live with a mental health condition.

1 in 17 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

50% of Mental Health Conditions begin by Age 14, and 75% by age 24.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It accounts for the loss of more than 38,000 American lives each year, more than double the number of lives lost to homicide.

Most people with mental illness are not violent, and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness.

Only 38% of adults with diagnosable mental health problems, and less than 20% of children and adolescents receive needed treatment.

64% of local jail inmates, 56% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners have symptoms of serious mental illnesses, showing a lack in the mental healthcare system (another article for another day).

I had the pleasure of speaking with Anastasia Armstrong, the Executive Director of The National Alliance on Mental Illness, to gain some insight on mental illness and the stigma attached.

What is NAMI SWLA and how did you come to be involved with them?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southwest Louisiana (NAMI SWLA) is an organization of families and individuals directly affected by mental illness. Members are recruited from a five parish area of Southwest Louisiana: Calcasieu, Cameron, Beauregard, Allen and Jeff Davis. Our mission is to improve quality of life for all those who are affected by mental illness through education, advocacy, and support. Our vision is to assist the community, local agencies, mental health rehabilitation services, and volunteer leaders in uniting together to gain a better understanding of mental illness.

In 2010 while working on a Bachelor's degree in Psychology, I had the opportunity to complete an internship for a local non-profit organization. After doing some research about NAMI SWLA, I wanted to learn more about what NAMI had to offer our local community. What really sparked my interest was for the last 30 years they have been working on a local level to eradicate stigma and promote treatment, recovery, and support for those affected in our area. 

How do you think the stigma of mental illness affects our community?

The stigma associated with mental illness promotes non-compliance in treatment, fear, and discrimination. People who have a mental illness diagnosis are portrayed as the uneducated and violent members of our community, which is not true at all! People diagnosed with a serious mental illness are more likely to be the victim of a crime, than the perpetrator. These stereotypes create many challenges related to family stability, employment, treatment, housing and educational opportunities.

How would you respond to someone who didn’t want to seek help out of fear of being labeled as “crazy”?

Treatment is confidential. Professionals which assist individuals with mental health challenges undergo training and provide a therapeutic environment, free of judgment. A person does not have to disclose that they are diagnosed and or undergoing treatment to anyone that they do not feel comfortable talking to about such a private matter. You must always show compassion when discussing mental health concerns with a friend or a loved one.


Do you believe Lake Charles to be sympathetic toward those with severe mental illness?

Most residents I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, are willing to put themselves in the shoes of someone affected by mental illness. Some lack the knowledge to truly understand what it's like, but most will ask questions; which gives us an opportunity to encourage acceptance, and remove some of the stigma of a severe mental illness diagnosis.


How do you think, we as a community, can help take the stigma of mental illness away?

Education is always the key. The more people learn about mental health conditions, the more they will understand you must take care of your mental health like your physical health. People that have a diagnosis want to be known for who they are, their achievements, and not the diagnosis label. When it comes to stigma, we should always concentrate on the family values because recovery for a person experiencing symptoms almost always starts out with having strong family support. In some cases stigma comes from within the family.

Speaking up about personal challenges that someone may be dealing with is the first step. When people hear a story from a friend or a relative about what it’s like to be affected by some form of mental illness, most people feel more comforted and connected. The story hits close to home, and teaches us we are not alone, there is hope.


What are some of the programs in Lake Charles and surrounding areas for those looking for help?

There are many evidence based support programs in the Lake Charles area. 

·       NAMI Family-to-Family is a 12-week education course for caregivers of adults with mental illness.

·       NAMI Basics is a 6-week education course for caregivers of children and adolescents with mental illness.

·       NAMI Peer-to-Peer is a unique learning program for people with any serious mental illness interested in establishing and maintaining their wellness and recovery.

·       NAMI In Our Own Voice is a public education presentation that offers insight into the hope and recovery possible for people living with mental illness.

·       NAMI On Campus is an extension of NAMI’s mission into the campus community.

·       Achieving Wellness is a support group for people living with mental illness.

·       Family Support Group is a support group for families and friends of those living with mental illness.

Our education courses and support groups are offered free to the public. For more information or to register for a class, anyone can call the NAMI SWLA office at (337) 433-0219. 

We also have a list of other programs available and we encourage residents to call, so we can provide them with the resources that will benefit them the most.       

Be the change you want to see in our area.

·       Get educated.

·       See mental illness as an illness such as diabetes or cancer; something that requires effort and maintenance.

·       Support recovery by showing interest in your loved one's treatment plan.

·       Listen carefully.

·       Maintain a healthy relationship.

·       Take care of your mental and physical health.

·       Be prepared for a crisis.

·       Find support for yourself and your loved one.


Cool websites and even cooler articles:


Inside the Battle to Define Mental

Rikers: Where Mental Illness Meets Brutality in Jail-New York Times

Editor's Note

While medication may not be the best option for everyone, it is an option that helps many people, suffering from a whole host of mental illnesses. We encourage anyone possibly suffering from mental illness, to seek professional help before decided what option is best for you. 

The help is out there, take advantage of it.