May 22, 2012

GlobalWords of strength in the NAMI Joplin office.

One year ago this week, tragedy struck Joplin, Mo.

A tornado with winds over 200 mph destroyed 25 percent of the town. Seven thousand homes were destroyed. One hundred sixty-one people died. A thousand more were injured.

About a month before, the largest outbreak of tornadoes ever recorded also struck 21 states. More than 350 people died as a result of those tornadoes. The death toll in Joplin—a single city—was nearly half that of the multi-state figure.

In the wake of the destruction, one pressing concern was the mental health of the survivors, particularly that of the children.

Two months after the tragedy, three deaths from suicide were attributed to posttraumatic stress and depression related to the tornado. Forty people reported suicidal thoughts. Calls to the local crisis hotline quadrupled. One veteran who lives with PTSD said that the scene of destruction was worse than what he had witnessed in Iraq.

The NAMI Affiliate in Joplin played a part in the relief effort, collecting and delivering supplies and organizing free counseling sessions. NAMI Missouri has since posted a moving slide show  on YouTube that commemorates NAMI Joplin’s efforts.

Scrawled on one wall in the city was the message: “Mental health help. We have a compassionate ear. NAMI,” followed by the affiliate’s phone number.

On another wall, someone painted in large letters: “Down, not out.”

Inside the NAMI Joplin office, a sign declared: “Never give up hope.”

NAMI takes great pride in its volunteers. So while thinking about NAMI Joplin this week, I also am thinking about another NAMI member who volunteered as part of the relief effort in Alabama, following the earlier string of tornadoes.

At the age of five, she came to the United States from a war-torn country.

She lives with bipolar disorder, as well as PTSD, but has been doing well for years, she wrote in a recent email.

While working as a caseworker for children in Alabama, the relief organization she was with, upon learning of her diagnosis, abruptly sent her home. They told her local chapter that they should never have sent her into a disaster zone. “They made assumptions about my disorder,” she wrote. The national organization tried to have her removed from the local chapter’s disaster relief team in her home state, but the team stood by her. Instead of working as a caseworker in the future, however, she can only register volunteers.

In contacting me, she asked that I use her story to help spread awareness about the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illness face—from people who make assumptions and never take the time to know us.

Her story left me thinking.

In Joplin today, there are people living with PTSD.

There also may be a few school children who years from now will experience onset of bipolar disorder, but will never forget the tornado and the help their families received from volunteers. They may even want to “pay it forward” by volunteering in some future disaster zone, drawing on the knowledge and empathy they acquired firsthand.

Will they be turned away too?

Let’s hope not, because they will have a lot to give.

Down, but not out. Never give up hope.

Thank you NAMI Joplin. Thank you NAMI volunteers everywhere

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