Ending the silence: Austin community works to dispel mental health stigma


AUSTIN (KXAN) – It’s been a little more than a week since 17 people were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

“So often, what we are doing is that in these tragedies we quickly point to the scapegoat, which is to say it’s a mental health issue,” said Karen Ranus, executive director of NAMI-Austin, the Austin chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

After the mass shooting in Florida, Ranus says the topic of mental health has kept coming up on a national platform.

“When we are in the kind of climate we are right now where you have public officials, people who are politicians, using phrases like, ‘sicko, nutjob’ — it’s alarming. And, also, it is incorrect,” said Ranus.

Today, NAMI-Austin invited the community to gather in hopes of starting the conversation focused on the importance of recognizing signs of mental illness and educating the community on how to help those in need receive the care they deserve.

“It’s my job now that I am learning about it to go back to my community and tell them different things about it,” said Angelica Walker, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin with plans of becoming a second-grade teacher.

Walker says growing up that mental health was not a topic of conversation in her household.

“Pray about it,” she said her parents would tell her. “I do believe that we should do that, but we need to be aware of it and how to go about it.”

Ranus says they’re working hard to bridge the gap between the community and those in need. The program at Huston-Tillotson University on Saturday consisted of powerpoints, one titled “Ending the Silence,” and group discussion.

“The only time that there is a lot of interaction between mental illness and violence is when there’s a tragedy,” said Ranus as she opened the program. “It’s important for you to know the facts, which are that in only three to five percent of cases when we see violence do we see mental illness involved. It’s a very small number. And, in reality, when we see that number, it’s usually in cases when it’s untreated.”

Ranus says grouping those who have mental illnesses under one umbrella doesn’t help move the conversation forward, and she believes it could potentially deter those in need of help from seeking it.

Instead, she says educating people like Walker on how to properly identify mental health issues is what will help end the stigma.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a mental illness as long as you know and you acknowledge it and make the steps forward to better yourself. I think that’s all that matters,” said Walker.

Ranus adds that the majority of the time, those with mental illnesses are usually targets of violent encounters themselves. For her, the goal of educating the community is personal as Ranus said, “seven years ago, I almost lost my daughter to suicide.”

She said her daughter was nervous to speak up and ask for help, so Ranus wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to anyone’s family.

“I don’t want us to be a community in which we don’t talk about mental health and that’s one of the reasons we lose good people every year to suicide,” said Ranus.

If you or someone you know needs help you can contact NAMI by calling 1-800-950-NAMI or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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