By Gideon Marcus
CARLSBAD — The firefighters of Carlsbad’s Station No. 5 got a crash course in the realities of life for those with mental disorders on March 12, when presenters from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, visited.
NAMI is a support network for those who have mental illness as well as their families and friends. NAMI started the In Your Own Voice program to help those with mental disorders who often resort to alcohol or illegal drugs for relief and then find themselves meeting law enforcement and paramedics under difficult circumstances.
The program’s goal is to share compelling personal stories about coping with and overcoming mental illness.
A videotape weaving six people’s stories is presented with a goal of giving audiences a better understanding of and respect for the afflicted.
“We do have a lot of calls that involve psychiatric patients or patients that have a medical component but they also have a psychological component,” EMS Manager Linda Allington, in charge of the station’s paramedics, said. “This training will give people more empathy and understanding towards dealing with the mentally ill.”
The program is also an opportunity for the speakers to share their stories of recovery and build confidence.
Both Marylnn Holland and Christine Canelias went through periods of substance abuse and homelessness. Now they have homes and jobs, and only those they tell know they have a mental illness.
“It’s my passion to get out and talk to people and let people know that they can recover from this and become a productive member of society,” Canelias said. “Something wasn’t right. All these years and I wasn’t getting it … Now it’s all coming to a head where my life is becoming normal — whatever normal is these days.”
Normally, firefighters deal with the mentally ill in their most difficult and uncommunicative states, which doesn’t facilitate understanding, paramedic Jerry Gutgesell said.
As the dozen attending firefighters watched the six narratives go from hard times through the process of diagnosis and treatment to the joy of recovery, they gained new insight on the mentally ill.
“It’s interesting for most of us because we don’t see the successes,” Gutgesell said. “What we see are the 911 calls … We only see people in crisis.”
Holland believes that through programs like In Our Own Voice, the negative views associated with mental illness can be dispelled. Her hope is that mental illness will one day be categorized with more traditional ailments like diabetes.
“The stigma is being erased,” Holland said. “People are more open about it. It’s more accepted. There is much better treatment today.”
More information on information on NAMI and the In Our Own Voice program can be found at nami-northcoastal.org.