One in 5 adults experience a mental health condition every year and one in 17 lives with a serious mental illness today. Defined as a condition that affects a person’s feelings, mood or the ability to relate to others and function day to day by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), what’s more is that even with the same diagnosis, each person will have different experiences and symptoms are often invisible to the naked eye.
NAMI Lexington aims to educate, advocate, listen and lead our community to a greater awareness and understanding of mental illness.
Phill and Kelly Gunning, NAMI Lexington’s Executive Director and Director of Advocacy and Public Policy, tell us that in addition to the person who is directly experiencing a mental illness, “family, friends and communities are also affected, but often overlooked in the healing and recovery process.” They know first-hand because they are one such family.
Phill and Kelly Gunning started their journey with NAMI over 17 years ago when they were experiencing traumatic circumstances brought on by the disease of a serious mental illness involving a close family member. “Our family was in a mental health crisis when we first came to NAMI years ago and at the time, though it was a resource for education, support and advocacy for people whose lives have been touched by serious mental illness, it was comprised mostly of a group of people who felt isolated and forgotten,” Kelly shares. “There were only 69 dollars in the bank when we first began attending the NAMI Lexington Family-to-Family class in 2002, which was life-changing and life-saving for us, and we knew we wanted to do more to help,” adds Phill. And help they did by volunteering not only to hold a benefit at The Blue Moon, but by headlining the fundraiser with their Rock and Roll band, Flashback. In just that one night, over $4,200 was raised for the organization. “It was an incredible start,” remembers Kelly, “and we have continued working so hard to provide other families with what was not available to us when we needed it.”
The Gunnings valued their initial NAMI experience so much that they went on to become teachers, teacher trainers, volunteers and eventually, the leaders of the Lexington organization, which was initially founded in 1985. Today, NAMI Lexington is a “front-runner in family education, consumer program development, peer-empowerment, collaboration, inclusiveness, diversity, cultural competence and scope of services”. Further, NAMI Lexington currently provides 20 free programs and services in addition to facilitating 10 weekly free support groups and holds frequent collaborations with a variety of other organizations to “connect and meet people where they are with the goal of holistic wellness for
all." The momentum is largely driven by the Gunnings and their team to get the word out about what this organization offers and what it means to the community continues to increase. Phill notes, “We value most what the NAMI ‘lived-experience’ affords individuals and families affected by serious mental illness as we have benefitted first-hand from the value of knowing you are not alone.” Kelly continues, “Navigating this illness affecting our family for the past 18 years would have been impossible without becoming a part of the NAMI Lexington organization. To be able to give back, to pay it forward, to change the script for families that are receiving a diagnosis for the first time, to be a life-changer and a life-saver with NAMI means to be a light in the darkness for those darkest days.”
There are many ways NAMI Lexington has been a light for the Lexington Community over the past seventeen years. These include collaborating to open the new Eastern State Hospital, a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility where people can now receive treatment for serious mental illness; creating “Participation Station”, the first peer-run, peer-operated center in Kentucky; developing and implementing the Fayette County Mental Health Court and advocating for the passage of Tim’s Law in 2017 for providing Assisted Outpatient Treatment. “NAMI Lexington’s Soul is devoted to community support, education, advocacy and promoting recovery for any individual whose life experience includes serious mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorder. We are a true Grassroots organization striving to provide all of our programs and services free to individuals and families from a ‘lived-experience’ perspective, which has proven to be most effective,” says Phill. Kelly adds, "We are always looking to define and refine service needs, to diversify funding streams, to increase membership and to increase community ownership and recognition of the need for these vital programs and we are so grateful to all of our amazing community partners and incredible board members and volunteers without whom we would not be where we are today.”
Everyone knows someone affected by mental illness. Each person experiencing this disease – which we can now see on a PET scan as clearly as we can see brain markers that indicate Alzheimer’s or the occurrence of a stroke – is someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, mother or father. “Not all disabilities are visible,” Kelly reminds us gently, “and we need a serious shift in mindset as a society to help dissolve the discrimination that people with a mental illness are faced with today.” To this end, there needs to be a greater focus on integrated care for people with this disease, and a greater sense of empathy and kindness imparted where traditionally there is not. “The stigma is still so great that people often do not want to share their stories for fear of being judged or isolated,” says Phill, “but we want people with serious mental illness to be treated without discrimination and without stigma more than anything.”
While NAMI Lexington has many plans to accomplish this over the next few years, one of their key goals will focus on educating and engaging the business community on the importance of having healthy workers in the workforce. To help businesses achieve this, NAMI Lexington features an outstanding course called Mental Health First Aid, which is like CPR for mental health, and it teaches individuals how to recognize if someone is in a mental health crisis and how to respond appropriately. They will also continue to develop programming and opportunities for youth through partnering with schools and other agencies to educate on Suicide Awareness and Prevention among a host of outstanding options to serve others and provide the opportunity for others to get involved and give back. “Everything we do locally is addressing a need identified by community stakeholders right here in Lexington and we ask heaven daily to please send more angels to continue this great work in Fayette County.”
For more information and complete details on all of the programs NAMI Lexington offers, please visit namilex.org. •
To become one of NAMI's local angels, be sure to follow NAMI Lexington on Social Media by liking and sharing on Facebook and Twitter or catch NAMI Lexington in and around the community at one of these great upcoming events:
Roots and Heritage Festival
September 13th - 14th
Festival Latino de Lexington
Recovery Festival at Eastern State Hospital
October 6th - 12th
National Mental Illness Awareness Week
NAMIwalks at Whitaker Bank Ballpark