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NAMI Clackamas Executive Director Michele Veenker says event is to celebrate life

PMG PHOTO: LAURA CANIDA - Max Day, peer resource coordinator with NAMI Clackamas, answers questions and provides information to clients at a recent event.The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Clackamas County held a summer picnic event Aug. 14 at Rivercrest Park in Oregon City, which Executive Director Michele Veenker said is a "celebration for those of us who have been impacted in one way or another with mental health issues."

"It is a time for us to celebrate being here and alive, and in person. So much of what has to do with mental health issues are negative and sad and grieving, and this is the time to get together and just be happy and enjoy each other," Veenker said.

"Whether you're a person with a mental health issue or you're someone who cares or loves for someone who does — just that in person connection, and that ability to not be alone is so important for our own mental health," she added.

The event included food, live music, and activities for all ages including a tie-dying station. Veenker said NAMI has been holding similar picnics for years, some dating back to before she joined the organization in 2010.

Since 1978, NAMI has provided free education, advocacy and support to those impacted by mental health issues, administered by people who have similar lived experiences with mental illness.

"If you're coming to us to get support around having a mental health issue yourself, you are going to meet with or go to a group that's facilitated by someone who has lived with a mental health experience themselves, and who are in recovery and have been trained to do those things," Veenker said, adding that for many participants, this "allows them the freedom and the strength to maybe talk about what they are going through for the first time."

Per a 2019 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 20,6% — one in five — of U.S. adults and 16.5% — one in six — of U.S. minors aged 6-17 experienced one or more mental illnesses in 2019, pre-pandemic. 5.2%, or one in 20 U.S. adults experience a serious and persistent mental health issue each year, which Veenker said are the kinds that are going to "really impact your ability to have relationships have a job."

NAMI has seen an "uptick" in demand for mental health services since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Veenker said, but it only expects demand to increase in the coming years. Due to increased demand, it will be opening an office for in-person visits in September for the first time since the pandemic.

She added that not only has the pandemic caused "neurological problems" for many individuals, but NAMI has recently discovered that those experiencing mental illness have low vaccination rates among them and are the most at-risk for contracting COVID. NAMI has partnered with the Oregon Health Authority to put on vaccine events and other services to mitigate this.

Throughout the pandemic, NAMI held virtual sessions which Veenker said came with a number of pros and cons.

"By going virtual, we have had people as far away as Costa Rica (attend). I had a support group the other day that had six people from east of the Mississippi who didn't have a local NAMI organization that they could go to," Veenker said. "That being said, there are some people that don't have access to internet, or don't feel comfortable using internet, so some people really need and want to get back to in person."

Despite mental illnesses not being curable, many who live with them are able to heal and live full, happy lives, Veenker said, referencing some of her children, who inspired her to become involved with NAMI.

"I'm involved with NAMI because I have five children, all of whom have some level of both substance use disorder and mental health issues," Veenker said, adding that some of them have high-paying jobs at big companies. "Looking at some of them right now, you would never ever dream — and certainly their employers and other people would never think that they have struggled with either of those issues."

Veenker said the stigma around mental illness often prohibits open dialogue on the matter, adding that NAMI often refers to mental. Illnesses as not being "casserole illnesses," meaning that after certain illnesses or accidents including cancer, diabetes and others, it is common practice for friends and family members to bring casseroles and other presents to show their support — but that happens less often with mental illnesses.

"If you tell somebody 'I have a family member who is in a psychiatric unit,' they kind of go 'oh,' and you know, kind of disappear," Veenker said.

On a positive note, Veenker said conversations around mental health are increasing, referencing high-profile figures such as Simone Biles who she said are destigmatizing mental illness by bringing national attention to the issue.

"People don't get help because of the stigma and discrimination that is experienced by people with mental health issues," Veenker said. "If we start talking about it, if people start feeling free to say 'I need help', maybe those same people will start getting help sooner. And when they get help sooner we know that there's better outcomes."

NAMI is the largest grassroots mental health organization in the nation with branches in all 50 U.S. states, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. To learn more about their services, or to find a location near you, visit their website here.

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