SHOW LOW — “Mental illness is the last stigma that still really exists,” said LeAnn Findlay of Show Low during her presentation to a crowd of more than 160 people last month at Torreon Golf Club.

Findlay, the guest speaker at the White Mountain Chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) gala, shared her experience before, during and after she was diagnosed with bipolar depression at age 20.

She was in nursing school at the time and couldn’t concentrate. After seeking help through therapy and medication, her symptoms improved.

Then she became pregnant with her now 16-year old son. “Unfortunately, my medication didn’t go well with pregnancy so I had to stop taking it,” she says.

“I thought I could be this awesome mom but, after my son was born I lived two years in postpartum depression,” she says. “I had to take different medications and I had a lot of struggles until 2008 when I suffered a physical illness. After that, the mental illness took control of me.”

Findlay says she was admitted to a psychiatric unit, was treated and released but things didn’t improve. She spoke about how she felt let down by the healthcare system.

“After my release, I was left alone to figure out what to do with myself; I was back in the community but without a support system,” she says.

“What I discovered is that there are a lot of us with mental health issues living amongst each other that also live in silence.”

“Once we get help for a mental illness or disease, it’s not a simple as going home with an antibiotic,” adds Findlay. “It’s nothing like a physical illness; it takes ongoing treatment, counseling, medication and support.”

Some of that support was what Findlay found through NAMI.

“I decided that I wanted to be a part of NAMI after meeting Ralph Engler at a Summit Health Fair,” says Findlay. “I jumped in head-first because NAMI allowed me to be more empowered to speak about my mental illness.”

Now, she is not only willing but welcomes the chance to speak to a crowd of strangers about her life, her struggles and her jagged path to a productive life despite her mental illness.

Findlay said that living in silence is something people choose to do because of the powerful, painful stigma associated with mental illness.

“Stigma, to me, means a preconceived idea that we can’t be successful in society if we are mentally ill or have a diagnosis,” she explains. “It takes a while to realize that each mental illness has its own things that go with it, but I don’t need to be defined by it.”

“Being bipolar means that my spectrum of emotions is bigger than most,” Findlay says. “ I have the same emotions and reactions to things but it’s more intense and more than the average person so it takes more to manage.”

From within NAMI

“I hope we can raise awareness to a point that we accept that mental illness is just as much a legitimate illness as a physical illness or disease,” says NAMI volunteer Shannon Bell.

“NAMI has actually given me a relationship with my daughter,” says NAMI volunteer, Kristin Heaton of Show Low. “Through education and awareness, I learned how to understand things from her point of view.”

“She was diagnosed in her twenties with paranormal schizophrenic psychosis and I just didn’t know how to deal with her,” adds Heaton. “Now I have empathy and understanding. I used to be more critical and it just didn’t work.”

“We have to stop alienating people due to our ignorance of mental illness,” she adds. “What I learned is that relationships can change tremendously with education and awareness,” adds Heaton.

“What I hope will come out of this event is to help raise awareness and, at the same time, to raise hope,” says event auctioneer Brenda Sherwood.

More about NAMI

NAMI is the largest grassroots organization in the U.S. for mental health, with approximately 1,000 chapters across the country.

Although small and only a year old, the White Mountain chapter is quickly growing. The success of the recent gala seems proof of that the community’s awareness of mental health issues is increasing. In conjunction with the growing awareness is the hope that mental and behavioral health resources in the White Mountains will expand.

For more information about NAMI events and meetings, call 928-298-1914 or visit www.namwmaz.org.

Reach the reporter at lsingleton@wmicentral.com

Laura Singleton is a reporter for the White Mountain Independent, covering Show Low city government, business and education.

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