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The Carver Adult Mental Health Initiative will be hosting an educational event from 10 a.m.-noon, Saturday, April 27, with refreshments at 9:30 a.m., at the Chaska Community Center theater, 1661 Park Ridge Drive, Chaska.

The event, given by NAMI-MN (National Alliance on Mental Illness), is called “Creating Caring Communities.” The speaker will focus on the stigma surrounding mental health, and present five ideas that common citizens can do to make their communities more supportive and accepting of those who live with mental health diagnoses.

It wasn’t that long ago that mental illness was something no one discussed in a community. Oh, everyone knew Mr. Wilson’s aunt was a little “peculiar,” but the family either ‘hid’ her away in their home, or they put her in an institution and rarely visited.

Stigma back then was strong, and in some respects, we’ve come a long way; in other respects, however, not much has changed.

By and large, the thinking still exists that the family member or neighbor who is rather “peculiar” is someone to be feared and ignored; that the person with mental illness is violent and unsafe to be around, unless he/she is being supervised by professionals (in an ‘institution’), or at the very least, taking all his/her medications. (How often have I heard it said that the person with mental illness who is having a “bad” day forgot to take his/her meds?)

With one out of five American adults experiencing a mental health diagnosis in any given year (according to www.nami.org), mental illness in our communities can no longer be ignored or thought of as someone else’s concern. Everyone is affected, either directly or indirectly, and everyone needs to be part of the solution. I propose several ways that we can work to make this happen.

First, it is critical to stop seeing a person as “mentally ill,” but rather think of that person as someone who has a mental illness. The distinction might be slight, but a person is not his/her illness and should not be defined by that illness. When you look for the commonalities you share with a person instead of the differences, you often start to feel closer to that person and you see your shared humanity. See everyone as a person, first and foremost, and look for ways in which you can relate to each other.

Secondly, individuals must educate themselves on the topic of mental health. Once they have a strong knowledge base, filled with facts, they can spread that knowledge within their community.

As I mentioned earlier, people are often afraid of the person with a mental illness and the violent acts that person might commit. This is erroneous information fueled by the media and Hollywood. The truth is, “(m)ost people with mental illness are not violent and only 3–5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness,” according to www.mentalhealth.gov.

In fact, people with a mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violent crimes and not the perpetrators, according to www.samhsa.gov.

Third, a person with a mental illness has the same needs and wants as anyone else in the community. All people need a warm, safe place to live, healthy food to eat, reliable transportation, affordable health care, and a dependable job. People also need a community that will provide them with social outlets and friendships, a community that will engage them in activities without being judgmental. Quite often not having these basic needs met creates stress and exacerbates mental health symptoms.

So, when a well-meaning person tells an individual struggling with his/her mental health to go see a doctor and get on medication, but that individual cannot afford health insurance or the cost of prescriptions, such advice is pointless. Instead, try asking the person with a mental illness: What do you need? What can I do to help?

Finally, allow conversations about mental health to take place within your community. This goes a long way toward reducing stigma and creating a caring environment for all concerned. Let people — people with a mental illness, their family and friends, and people who don’t have a clue what mental illness is about — know that in their community, it is OK to talk about mental health, it is OK to have a mental illness or care about someone with a mental illness, and it is also OK to be clueless.

Once people feel free to voice what they need or want to say, in a caring and nonjudgmental atmosphere, then the conversations will lead to both educational opportunities and possibilities for positive relationships to form.

An excellent way to open the conversation in your community and educate yourself on mental health is to attend NAMI-MN’s two-hour educational event, “Creating Caring Communities.” In addition to the event itself, there will be several resource tables with information about mental health services available in the county. I hope to see you Saturday morning, April 27.

Lisa Gjerde served three terms on the Carver County Mental Health Advisory Council, and she currently serves on the Steiner-Kelting Mental Wellness Facility Advisory Committee and the Carver Adult Mental Health Initiative. As a person with a lived experience of mental illness, she is committed to ‘Creating Caring Communities’ in Carver County.

Community Editor

Mark Olson, the Chaska and Chanhassen community editor who has worked in Carver County for 20 years, makes any excuse to write about local history. In his spare time, Mark enjoys perusing old books, watching blockbusters and taking Midwest road trips.

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