‘It’s OK to not be OK’

Mental Health Month smashes stigma surrounding mental illness.

“Hear” from #themessengerman; 44 x 44 in., on canvas, by Traeger di Pietro; shown at the Field Gallery and North Water Gallery. For more work see traegerdipietro.com.

Many people on Martha’s Vineyard don’t realize the amount of mental illness that exists in our small Island community. Similarly, there are a large number of people living with mental illness here who don’t realize the many support systems available to them.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI) Mental Health Month is all about raising awareness and support for those suffering, and erasing the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Martha’s Vineyard coordinator for NAMI, Lisa Belcastro, wants everyone to know that “it’s OK to not be OK,” and that getting help for yourself, a friend, or a family member is not an easy journey. “It’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to need help from other people. Accepting that is an important step forward,” Belcastro said.

According to Belcastro, there are many people on-Island living with post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and bipolar disorder — some of them are living undiagnosed or unmedicated because they fear judgment.

“There are more people on this Island with that situation than you might realize. Kids are dealing with cutting themselves, suicidal tendencies, depression, and extreme schizophrenia,” Belcastro said. “Our therapists and mental health specialists will be on the alert during this month in case anyone is triggered.”

Belcastro also mentioned how the “blame game” often keeps parents from seeking a support system for their mentally ill children because they feel as if they are at fault. “There is so much undeserved guilt involved with the blame game. The parents ask themselves, ‘What could I have done differently? How could I have prevented this?’” Belcastro said.

Belcastro says that shame and guilt sometimes prevent families from taking the first step in finding help for a mentally ill loved one: “You can’t fix what you didn’t know. We want loved ones to understand that you didn’t do anything wrong.”

Even if a parent or family member is doing everything they can by themselves to help the afflicted, Belcastro said, in most cases, that will not be enough to cure someone.

“Very rarely are these things curable without therapy and medication,” Belcastro said. “Although when families are actively involved in supporting the person while they are receiving treatment, there is a higher chance the illness will be cured or controlled.”

Megan Grennan teaches the Family-to-Family class at NAMI, a free, 12-session program for family, partners, friends, and significant others of adults living with mental illness. The class teaches people how to support their loved one who is suffering, while also supporting their own well-being.

Grennan said that Mental Health Month is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. She said that although it is a good time to raise awareness, “every day is mental health day for me. This is a lifelong ambition.”

When Grennan’s son was 18, he had his first psychotic break while off at college. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and before that point, not even Grennan knew about her son’s mental illness: “It was already there, but we just never knew, or maybe saw the illness as something else, sort of discounting it as, ‘Oh, he is just being a teenager.’”

But Grennan said she grew up in a family that was “filled with mental illness,” but did not know because the evaluations, tests, and treatments of modern psychiatry were not available. “It almost seemed normal, because everyone was so used to it. If you were feeling depressed or anxious, you were just told to keep going, keep pressing on,” Grennan said.

As a mother of someone with mental illness, Grennan said she was the team leader in her son’s treatment plan. “I was practically in charge of his prognosis and his day-to-day planning,” Grennan said.

After three years of working with her son to battle his illness, Grennan decided to go to her first Family-to-Family course.

“It was difficult, but once I took the Family-to-Family course, I learned about all these new ways to cope with stress and to help my son on an individual basis,” Grennan said. “That course changed the trajectory of my life more than I could possibly imagine.”

Now that she teaches the class, she said, she enjoys helping other families confront their illnesses and giving them practical tools to maintain their own happiness and success.

To those who believe the mentally ill should be able to make the choice to get treatment all on their own, Grennan said it isn’t that easy. “Asking a mentally ill person to get treatment for themselves is like asking a person with a broken leg to walk themselves to the hospital,” she said.

And Grennan said that, oftentimes, the families of the mentally ill need their own support system so they too can feel like they have somewhere to turn to. “You cannot do this alone, you cannot do this uninformed. So go and educate yourself on what mental illness really is, and get involved with a group of people that have gone through what you are going through; they will be able to help,” Grennan said.

Contact 508-776-3746, or email namionthevineyard@namicapecod.org to preregister or ask questions.

NAMI events for Mental Health Month

May 2: Family-to-Family course

May 5: First Sunday support group, 6 to 7:30 pm at Island Wide Youth Collaborative

May 7: “Inside Out,” 3:30 pm at the Oak Bluffs library. Bring your children for a fun afternoon of snacks, games, and an awesome movie to help share and talk about feelings and emotions.

May 13: Dinner and a Movie with Chef Gavin Smith, 6 pm. Enjoy a free dinner and a showing of “As Good as It Gets,” along with a guest speaker. Limited to 20 people.

May 14: Second Tuesday support group, 6:30 to 8 pm at the Island Wide Youth Collaborative.

May 18: Attorney Debra Rahmin Silberstein at the Oak Bluffs library, 10 am to 1 pm. Estate planning for families with loved ones living with a mental illness. Bring your questions and concerns. Seminar is free to all.

May 20: Dinner and a Movie with Andrea Peraino of Not Your Sugar Mamas and Juice by the Sea MV. Showing “The Soloist,” with guest speaker Dr. Charles Silberstein. 20 people only.

May 22: “Inside Out,” 3:30 pm at the Edgartown library. Bring your children for a fun afternoon of snacks, games, and an awesome movie to help share and talk about feelings and emotions.

May 30: Craig Miller talks at Katharine Cornell Theater, 7 pm.