As NAMI members, we know an illness only grows worse if we fail to confront its symptoms, especially if we push it underground and pretend it doesn’t exist. We also know that empathy builds trust, awareness reduces fear, and that advocacy is a duty, not an option. We know this because our cause is personal – we’ve experienced it in our families, our communities, and in ourselves.
As Coronavirus has swept the globe, this sense of compassion and mutual obligation has driven NAMI affiliates to transition quickly to a jarring new reality, and to offer help to the untold thousands who one year ago would never have imagined they’d need support for anxiety or depression. Out of crisis, the world now sees that attending to mental health is as essential as healthy diet or annual checkups. The actions we take now will have lasting consequences for our movement – for better or worse.
Yet the turmoil that followed the killing of George Floyd shows how far our society has to go. Failure to address systemic racism has done more than inflict pain and injustice on our African American families and other communities of color. Ignoring this chronic disease has damaged our entire nation, widening wounds at a time when healing is essential. We need more than statements of support, or reactive prosecutions of high-profile crimes in which black lives have clearly NOT mattered. The time has come for fundamental change, backed by a sustained national commitment, meaningful resources, and a focus on tangible solutions. Each of us needs to do our part.
The connection between mental health and racism is not merely an analogy. Can we really say that our mental health system truly reflects our state’s diversity or adequately addresses the needs of the different constituencies that make us strong? Have unconscious bias or overt stereotypes been eradicated from our approach to diagnosis and treatment? Does every community of color, rural area, or newly arrived Illinoisan have adequate access to practitioners who embrace their cultures and understand their unique needs?
We know the answers. We must do much more, right now. Equity and inclusion need to be our principles for real action, not simply a statement of support. Those of us who have benefited from privilege have an obligation to do even more to support those of us who don’t. As a white male blessed to serve as NAMI Illinois’ executive director, I embrace this challenge and stand unequivocally with our African American and Latino communities who have been most affected by historic illness of institutional racism. And I believe change can be achieved if we accept our responsibilities and focus on real solutions to specific problems.
It will take all of us to bring out the best of us. I am grateful for the opportunity to help NAMI Illinois shape the better world we can become.
Executive Director, NAMI Illinois