By Elena Schatell
This past Monday, Aug. 24th, mental health advocates including family members, allies, professionals and others personally impacted by mental illness gathered in D.C. to march and rally to change the misperceptions about mental health. The exciting event, Destination Dignity, was organized by The Dignity Mental Health Coalition, of which NAMI is a supporting partner. It brought together people from all over the country to raise public awareness of the issues that affect Americans with mental illness today.
Monday also happened to be my first day starting as a NAMI intern in the policy department.
That morning when I made my way to the NAMI national office, I expected to spend my day undergoing training and orientation. I anticipated a long day at my desk reading articles and background materials. Instead, not even an hour into my day, I was pleasantly surprised and excited to find myself on the metro heading to the rally. Alongside me were two NAMI State Policy Managers and Bob Carolla, the director of media relations, who was going to be speaking at the event.
When we arrived at the event, everyone was dressed in green and carrying green signs, which is the color worn to raise awareness for mental health. The crowd was already starting to gather around the National Mall eager for the event to begin. While the cause and purpose of this event was not new to me, attending the rally and being immersed in the crowd was a great way to be introduced to the energy and drive of mental health supporters and advocates. Being a member of the crowd gave me an exciting sense of purpose and helped me prepare both mentally and energetically for the semester ahead as a NAMI intern.
At the rally, leaders of mental health organizations from around the nation spoke of ending the stigma, stereotypes, discrimination and dehumanization that surrounds those with mental illness. With these pervasive issues present, it is difficult for people to come forward and seek help. Stigma will continue to prevent mental health progress in our country until societal attitudes and actions change and our broken, underfunded system is fixed. By overcoming discrimination, we can begin to bring an end to the high levels of unemployment, criminalization, suicide and homelessness among those who live with mental illness.
In his speech, Carolla emphasized that mental illness does not discriminate. It affects the poor and rich, men,women, Republicans and Democrats. Having a mental illness does not make anyone less of a person. It does not equate to being shamed or regarded simply as a label or diagnosis. On Monday, we stood on the Mall to demand dignity instead of disrespect and prejudice.
It was inspiring to see a few hundred people come out to support this cause for dignity and change. As the event progressed, a supportive and strong energy radiated through the crowd, accompanied by cowbells, cheers and chants. What do we want? DIGNITY! When do we want it? NOW!
Mental health leaders and advocates realize that change is a process, and we have a long way to go. But the rally proved that a powerful voice comes from people who have been directly affected by mental illness. People who have been silent and stigmatized for their diagnoses bring a commanding perspective to the table that begs to be heard.
I am back at the NAMI office now, but those memorable voices will continue to power me through the semester as an intern and beyond. I am eager to begin my internship at NAMI and make my mark towards destination dignity and progress in mental health.
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