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#IWILLLISTEN: NAMI-NYC Metro's Mental Illness Stigma Fight Goes to the Midwest

Most mental health campaigns ask those with mental illness, one out of five Americans, to speak up and tell their story. #IWILLLISTEN asks people who do not have mental illness, four out of five Americans, to listen with compassion and patience when a friend or family member talks about his or her condition.
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Wedged in a corner of northwest Missouri, flanked by Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, lies a small college town called Maryville. On Monday, April 20, 2015, this hamlet of approximately 10,000 residents and 6,000 college students overcame its relative quiet to take a stand on mental health.

Missouri has a suicide rate of 15.9 per 100,000, three more people than the national average. For a decade-long run ending in 2013, Missouri had the gloomy distinction of being the state with the most meth lab seizures. The Maryville community and Northwest Missouri State University (NWMSU) decided to challenge the Midwest's native stoicism about mental health and launch an anti stigma, mental health movement called #IWILLLISTEN.

Their journey began last year when a licensed psychologist and NWMSU professor, Carla Edwards, began peppering social media with uplifting messages about mental health. Her tweets attracted the attention of many people, including me. I reached out to Dr. Edwards and invited her to visit me in NYC as we shared a common passion to advocate for individuals and families impacted by mental illness. Last May, Dr. Edwards took her first trip to New York City where she and her husband participated in the 2014 NAMIWalks NYC (National Alliance on Mental Illness) 5K walk and run, the largest mental health 5K walk and run in the country. Dr. Edwards also met with the NAMI NYC-Metro staff who educated her about the #IWILLLISTEN movement.

The psychology professor saw an opportunity for her local community to fight the stigma which can breed hopelessness and prevent people from seeking help.

"Untreated mental illness affects us all. It shapes our economy, affects our workplaces, and interferes with our ability to educate our children," says Dr. Edwards. "Stigma is so prevalent that many people believe that those who have mental illness are criminals or attention seeking. In reality, mental illness is usually hidden from sight, and it is a part of the lives of our good and caring neighbors, who work next to us, and attend church with us. Mental illness is a disease of the brain, period."

Most mental health campaigns ask those with mental illness, one out of five Americans, to speak up and tell their story. #IWILLLISTEN asks people who do not have mental illness, four out of five Americans, to listen with compassion and patience when a friend or family member talks about his or her condition.

Dr. Edwards recruited 14 students from NWMSU to turn #IWILLLISTEN into a true collaboration between the city and its university. The students worked 4-6 hours a week for six weeks talking with community businesses, organizations, and industry about the effects of mental health stigma. Alison Sandoval, one of the student organizers said, "My father and brother both struggle with bipolar disorder and it is for them that I fight mental health stigma." Keyonna Hawkins, another NWMSU student said, "Working on the #IWILLLISTEN campaign has been a great opportunity to see how a few voices can help a community come together. I have become a mental health advocate and a community activist. I know the university and community have been changed because of something I took part in. That is the greatest feeling ever."

Maryville community members, contrary to Midwestern stereotypes, are used to living and working with all types of diversity. Residents quickly rallied to help with ideas of their own. Churches, civic and youth groups, Greek fraternities and sororities, the high school choir, soccer and football teams, the hospital, mental health agencies, grade school children, local businesses and banks joined to create a dense support net. Ultimately, more than 500 individuals attended the "Gathering of Support" and other events during the day. Students posted video pledges to "listen to those impacted by mental illness" on their NWMSU #IWILLLISTEN Facebook page. The page garnered over 1,000 likes and some of their #IWILLLISTEN videos had over 3,000 views.

At the "Gathering of Support," Mayor Renee Riedel proclaimed April 20, 2015 #IWILLLISTEN Day in Maryville and pledged that the city would listen to those impacted by mental health conditions.

Partially using money raised by selling #IWILLLISTEN T-shirts, 14 NWMSU students and their sponsors, Dr. Edwards, Dr. Jennifer Pratt-Hyatt, and Health Educator B.K. Taylor will travel to NYC to join NAMI NYC-Metro for their ninth annual NAMIWalks NYC on Saturday May 9, 2015. It will also be the first #IWILLLISTEN Day in New York City. The Missouri team will represent the bridge between America's rural homeland, where a locally grounded event drove positive social change, and New York City where the #IWILLLISTEN movement was originally conceived.

If you are interested in joining NAMIWalks NYC, please sign up.

1,250 miles away, leading up to the Maryville #IWILLLISTEN day, NAMI NYC-Metro staff had offered the organizers advice and encouragement. As board president of Nami NYC-Metro, I was invited to speak at the event. I ended up meeting many Maryville residents plus NWMSU students and faculty and I marveled at the sense of unity and meaning that engulfed their efforts.

Prior to my trip to Maryville, I believed #IWILLLISTEN represented a social media campaign where strangers in large numbers could be educated about mental health and find solace online. I have been inspired after witnessing a small Missouri town create a mosaic of mental health support for a public health issue. I now understand that the strength and meaning of #IWILLLISTEN can also be celebrated on a place-by-place basis, amplified by neighbors, friends and colleagues who know and look out for each other every day.

I hope other small cities adopt #IWILLLISTEN to grow their own grassroots community of mental health advocates.

Barbara Ricci
Board President NAMI NYC-Metro