They’ll be walking to draw attention to mental health issues. They’ll be walking to battle the stigma that society often places on mental illness. They’ll be walking to raise money for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
But most of all, they’ll be walking for themselves and each other.
Participants in Highland Rivers peer support program and Highland Rivers employees will be taking part on Saturday, Oct. 13, in a fundraising walk in Rome for NAMI. The group calls itself the Can Do Peers.
Highland Rivers offers mental health, substance abuse and developmental disabilities services in 11 Georgia counties, including Whitfield and Murray. The agency’s executive offices are in Dalton. It’s peer support program provides structured activities and other help for adults with mental illness.
“We are a program that focuses on whole health, not just mental illness. Mental health, physical health and spiritual health are all tied together,” said Natalie Davis, a certified peer specialist. “Right now, we are doing a series on stress management. We try to build on our strengths instead of focusing on our weaknesses. We try to focus on positive things we can do to help us live a healthier lifestyle. Instead of saying, ‘I’ve got to lose 50 pounds,’ we’ll say, ‘I’m going to walk 30 minutes a day three days a week.’”
The program currently has about 30 people enrolled and meets from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“We try to teach them the skills they need and move them out to other services. Some people get what they need in three months. Some people take nine months. Some people need a year,” said Teresa Coker, the certified activity director. “Some people graduate but then have to come back for what we call a tune-up because something has happened in their lives to cause them to relapse.”
In the past, Coker has helped organize Highland Rivers’ participation in the annual NAMI Walk, but this year the members of the peer support program are organizing it and raising money.
“Last year, she helped us raise $2,000. In the past, Teresa has organized it. This year she is encouraging the peers to organize it. We are doing better than I thought we would be. We’ve got $700, and our goal is $1,000,” Davis said.
Malcolm, one of the peer support group members, said they hope to not only raise money for NAMI’s programs but also raise awareness for the group. (Highland Rivers officials asked that only the first names for peer group members be used.)
“It speaks to the public. Mental health really doesn’t get the attention and awareness it should. There’s often a stigma attached to being mentally ill. But it’s usually due to the lack of education. NAMI puts it on the front burner, and it can lessen that stigma through education,” he said.
“The public doesn’t know enough about what NAMI does. NAMI does so much to fight the stigma attached to mental illness. That stigma holds a lot of people back from getting a job or going back to school,” she said. “They are always lobbying the state government, trying to make sure they are aware of the needs of the mentally ill.”
In addition, the Rome NAMI provides free service across the North Georgia region, from training law enforcement officers in how to deal with the mentally ill to classes for family members of and caregivers to the mentally ill to peer support for the mentally ill.
“The Rome NAMI has been wonderful. They give us educational materials. We’ve been to a couple of their meetings. They have family-to-family workshops. They have peer-to-peer workshops. My goal in the future is to have a NAMI in Dalton,” Coker said.
NAMI also helps fund the annual Christmas banquet for Highland Rivers’ peer support program, a major event for group members.
“The Christmas banquet gives us a chance to recognize people and congratulate them on their recovery,” said Paula, a peer support program member.
To find out more about the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Rome NAMI Walk, go to www.namiwalks.org/rome. To make a donation through credit card or PayPal on behalf of the Can Do Peers, go to namiwalks.nami.org/candopeers.