ORLANDO, Fla. (Ivanhoe Newswire) – May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Did you know one in 17 people in the U.S. are living with a mental illness? Over eight million people struggle with schizophrenia.
Lack of funding, resources, and an overall misunderstanding of the illness is creating a vicious cycle that leaves many people undiagnosed, locked up, or homeless. Now, two moms, living thousands of miles apart, are working to change the system and the stigma of schizophrenia, hoping to help their own sons as well as others like them.
“His reality is not like our reality,” Janet van der Laak, Matthew’s mother said.
“Staring off like not at you, but through you,” Paula Kegelman, President at NAMI Greater Orlando, said.
The two mothers are working to alter the way we treat people with the mental illness.
“When the cops found him, he was cowering in the corner saying somebody was trying to kill him,” Laak said.
Janet van der Laak’s son Matthew spent the next several weeks in jail. That’s why she’s determined to change how the courts deal with the mentally ill.
“With the Starr Program, that takes away the police and inserts social workers,”Laak said.
911 operators are trained to recognize non-threatening calls. Instead of calling police, they call in mental health counselors.
“On all 107 we’ve been on there there hasn’t been one time where we’ve had to call police,” Chris Richardson, social worker at the Starr Program, said.
Meanwhile, Paula Kegelman is working to change the stigma surrounding schizophrenia. Her son David was diagnosed at 17. The hurdles she faced, included access to care and affordable housing.
“There’s waiting lists to get in to see psychiatrists now,” Kegelman said.
In fact, 77% of U.S. counties have reported a severe shortage of psychiatrists. Paula dedicates her life to helping people find help.
“There’s two things, two emotions that people feel immediately when this strikes their family, hopeless and that they’re all alone,” Kegelman articulated. Those two things are completely inaccurate, that there is hope and that we are definitely not alone.”
An estimated 383,000 people with severe mental illness are behind bars nationwide. The Starr Program in Denver hopes to lower that number and be a model for other cities across the country. If you or your loved one need help with mental illness, you can contact the national alliance of mental illness at namigo.org.