NAMI Conference 2018: Helping people make connections

I came to my first NAMI conference as a person in recovery from bipolar disorder and as a mental health journalist. The NAMI 2018 conference in New Orleans last month proved wildly successful in connecting me with like-minded souls as well as to businesses and organizations that can help people like me live complete and meaningful lives.

I began my day with NAMIWalks, taking a sunrise stroll around the New Orleans riverfront, an excellent way to counteract all of the sitting I did at the conference. I drank my share of free coffee in the Welcome Center, sponsored by Beacon Health Options, while randomly connecting with NAMI members in my own state. I also met Judge Calvin Johnson, a mental health court judge in New Orleans, who chatted for a half hour in the Welcome Center about policy and the court system. His was the first of many talks I was to attend.

The many lessons learned and stories heard

I got to chat at length in the exhibit hall with Jennifer Marshall, executive director of This is My Brave, an organization that uses theatrics to eliminate the stigma of mental illness.

I attended workshops on the standards of care in U.S. jails and prisons for people with mental illness led by Jim Martin of the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare.

I listened to Judge Johnson’s panel with Ruby Qazilbash, Associate Deputy Director, Bureau of Justice Assistance, US Department of Justice, and Adrienne Kennedy, NAMI Board of Directors Austin, Texas, discuss decriminalizing mental illness.

I heard Jennifer Mackinday speak about caregiver mental health, and specifically, how she took care of her wounded brother when he came home from Iraq.

I went to a workshop on narrative therapy given by Dr. Constance Scharff, where I learned how to use personal storytelling to change the way I think about my life. If you think positive things about yourself, positive things will happen and vice versa.

I attended a workshop on peer support inclusion with law enforcement and the court system given by Micah Pearson, NAMI Affiliate President and Peer Support Specialist in New Mexico.

I learned about mental health and entrepreneurship from Rima Reddy, director of Corporate Partnerships at XRC Labs. Ms. Reddy suggested entrepreneurs use the following coping techniques to gain positive mental health: practice self-awareness, recognize symptoms, identify triggers, monitor physical and digital environment, consider disclosure, find an outlet, take a break, lead a healthy lifestyle, and seek help.

I went to a workshop on narrative therapy given by Dr. Constance Scharff, where I learned how to use personal storytelling to change the way I think about my life. If you think positive things about yourself, positive things will happen and vice versa.

I listened to Alejandra Juan, Communications Director/Veterans Outreach Coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, and a veteran himself, talk about the mental health needs of female veterans who have a higher suicide risk.

Judge Johnson, who presided over the 13th mental health court in America in 2003, said the problem of people with mental illness in the correctional system was a problem 30 years ago but a bigger problem today. Qazilbash added that people with mental illness make up 17 percent of the jail population.

I watched an amazing documentary, “Almost Sunrise”, about “moral injury” obtained by soldiers during war. Moral injury, according to the documentary, is a more accurate description of soldiers’ psychic injuries than PTSD.

“I believe PTSD and moral injury run parallel to each other,” said Tom Voss, one of the veterans in the film who spoke on a panel after the showing.

The film tracked a walking journey Mr. Voss and Anthony Anderson, both Iraq War veterans, took to work out their issues resulting from the war. Through learning meditation and appreciating nature, they found healing more powerful than the use of antidepressants.

There’s a lot going on in the field of mental health, and I’m thankful for the NAMI convention for providing me the opportunity to make those connections.

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