One day last fall, members of Modesto Junior College’s NAMI on Campus organization decided they would hand out candy suckers. Each wrapper bore a positive message intended to chip away at the stigma associated with mental illness.
They’ve still got plenty of chipping to do, they learned.
“Some people said stuff like, ‘Mom said we can’t take candy from crazy people,’” said Lisa Sanchez, 27, president of the MJC group. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 4 years old and went on Social Security disability at 18.
It would have been easy for them to snap back verbally, she said. But to do so would have been counterproductive.
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“What they would have expected,” she said.
Disappointed? Yes. Surprised? No.
NAMI is the acronym for National Alliance on Mental Illness. The NAMI on Campus group formed about a year ago in concert with countywide NAMI Stanislaus. Eight of the group’s 11 members have some form of mental illness of which there are many types and degrees. These people understand why others react the way they do because some have experienced it within their own families.
“My own family used to call me ‘Polar Bear,’” Sanchez said. “I got older, I got more vocal. They’ve stopped. I’m fending for myself now.”
According to NAMI’s fact sheet, one of every 17 adults in America will “live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.”
Three others joined in support roles because they’ve had family members with mental illnesses. They all are taking courses that will, some day, enable them to counsel others with mental illness issues.
One member, Joe Salazar, hopes to learn enough that if he can ever find his schizophrenic, bipolar and homeless son living somewhere in the area, he’ll be able to help him.
“There’s been no intervention,” Salazar said. “Hopefully, he’s still alive.”
Each tells a compelling story and a reason for joining the organization. All of them will tell you this: They rely on each other and on Kimberly Kennard, an MJC professor of human services who brought NAMI to the campus, for support.
“I really felt passionate about bringing this on campus,” Kennard said.
Because without the organization, most of its members would not be in school to pursue their dreams and careers. Mental illness, in some cases enhanced by drugs and alcohol, would have made that impossible.
Amy Rowell, 31, found methamphetamine controlling her life and mind. She’d try to go to school, but failed her classes. It wasn’t until she got off the drugs that she realized the grip they had on her mind and her existence. She understands the need to support and be supported, which is why she joined. She sees the difference in the classroom as well as in her home life.
“I’ve had six semesters of straight A’s,” Rowell said.
Members range from 18-year-old Jolin Dhillon, who joined to support others and to combat the public perception of people living with mental illness, to 68-year-old Richard Salazar, a Vietnam-era veteran who has adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is a recovering alcoholic.
The courses, the on-campus arm and countywide NAMI organization, and the people in them have changed him, he said.
“When I got here, I was not a nice person,” Salazar said.
He’s surprised and moved that, despite his behavior for so long, both of his daughters still speak to him.
“I was selfish, self-centered and very controlling,” he said. “Now, I’m learning what not to do. I’m learning mindfulness, awareness and confidentiality. I used to self-medicate. Now I self-educate.”
A member who identified himself only as Mr. X, like Richard Salazar, is a military veteran who says the stigma of mental illness is felt by many other veterans.
“People look at you and say, ‘He might have (post-traumatic stress disorder)’ and go off on us,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot by being a part of this. It’s been a great help.”
Matthew Pate, 36, said he’s never been without problems.
“I’m an ex-drug addict and alcoholic,” he said. “I’ve had mental health issues my whole life. Every time we moved, I thought it was my fault. I grew up in a home of secrecy. What goes on in the house, you didn’t say.”
On Jan. 31, 2014, he found himself in the Behavioral Center at Briggsmore Avenue and Claus Road.
“I was suicidal,” he said. “I thought everyone was going to kill me.”
Then a strange thing happened.
“The guard offered me a chicken sandwich,” Pate said.
That little gesture struck him as an act of humanity. It meant someone cared. It meant he mattered.
“I’m slowly building a life for myself,” he said. “I found girl who’ll marry me.”
These folks can recognize others in peril because they’ve been there themselves or around those who have. Recently, Tiffany Walters, NAMI on Campus’ secretary, encountered a suicidal woman and called the Modesto police.
“She didn’t realize she needed help,” Walters said.
The woman lashed out at her for intervening.
“But I’d rather have her hate me than another life lost,” Walters said.
Clearly, it was a case where a candy sucker and a positive message written on the side weren’t going to make a difference. But knowledge and recognition of a person in distress did. It was a victory shared and embraced by those in the group who, not all that long ago, might have been the one in trouble.
And that is what brings them together.
NAMI will hold a fundraising and awareness event April 7 at the Barkin’ Dog Grill, 940 11th St., downtown Modesto. The event will include live music, a silent auction, raffle and more. Tickets are $10 each. For more information, call NAMI Stanislaus at (209) 558-4555.