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My View: Join walk, shine light on mental illness

May is National Mental Health Month, and on this Sunday, the Oregon Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness will host its 12th annual NAMI Northwest Walk in Portland to bring mental illness out from the shadows.

An estimated one in four Americans is affected by mental illness, directly or indirectly. The saddest way to be affected is by the suicide of a loved one or colleague.

Nationally, there is one suicide every 13 minutes. In Oregon, more people die by suicide than from auto accidents, HIV/AIDS and homicide combined. In 2012, 700 Oregonians took their lives, approximately 200 more than those who died from breast cancer.

Mental illness is linked to changes in brain chemistry in the later teenage years, changes that occur normally, but sometimes go wrong. Contributing causes also may include traumatic stress, genetics and physical injuries.

Yet mental illness can be managed for a successful life, as exemplified by news anchor Jane Pauley, musician Billy Joel and Nobel Prize mathematician John Nash — all of whom have publicly acknowledged living with mental illness.

If mental illness can be controlled, why do we have such a high suicide rate? One answer is that mental illness is still in the shadows, the subject of persistent stigma. Many people, especially teenagers and young adults, are deterred from speaking out. They fear that if they ask for help, their friends, employers and families may shun them.

More than 2,750 walkers came to the NAMI Walk last year from Oregon and Southwest Washington to end that stigma. All of us have walked in the past or will walk this year. We walk because we have experienced mental illness and its impacts upon our families, neighbors and colleagues. We walk because we love someone who suffers from or has died from brain illnesses.

We walk to remember Jerry’s daughter Susanna, Alissa’s uncle Kimball, and friends Graham and Steve. We walk in thankfulness for their presence in our lives and in gratitude that our list of personal losses is not

longer. We walk to show that people care about the struggles endured in experiencing an illness that is devastating and often stigmatized, as was cancer 50 years ago.

We walk to promote health, housing and human service policies that help those experiencing mental illness to lead productive lives that enrich our families and our communities. We walk to inform others of the community resources to support people who live with mental illness and their families. We walk to encourage families to seek greater information from providers to help those they love so much.

We walk to raise money for NAMI, an organization that does not charge for helping others. Most of all, we walk to bring mental illness out of the shadows and make people aware that there is help — and hope.

Please join us at noon Sunday, May 18, under the Hawthorne Bridge near the Vera Katz statue. There is a bumper sticker that reads: “Reach Out, Check in, Save a Life.” Please take that phrase to heart. We are all in this together.

Jerry Gabay, whose daughter took her life four years ago just after turning 21, is a member of the NAMI Oregon Board of Directors, co-chair of Providence Health Systems Community Behavioral Health Collaborative, and co-recipient of the 2013 Access Award given by the Oregon Psychiatric Association for achievement in improving access to mental health care; state Reps. Alissa Keny-Guyer, Joe Gallegos, Lew Frederick, and Carolyn Tomei have pursued advanced degrees in public health, social work or communications, have served on the House Human Services Committee, and are passionate about improving mental health