Vermilion County's Mental Health Awareness Week: 'It's time to remove the stigma'

Vermilion County's Mental Health Awareness Week: 'It's time to remove the stigma'

DANVILLE — When someone is diagnosed with cancer, family members, friends, neighbors, even strangers step up to help and support them.

Sadly, mental-health problems oftentimes are treated differently, according to a local mental-health official.

"We often shun them or are afraid to offer help," said Jim Russell, director of the Vermilion County Mental Health 708 Board. "It's important for all of us to realize mental health is as important as physical health. And it's time to remove the stigma that often surrounds mental-health issues and prevents people from getting the help they may need to put their lives back together."

This is Mental Health Awareness Week in Vermilion County, a time that's now set aside each year to raise awareness about the importance of recognizing signs of mental-health problems and eliminating the stigma that surrounds them.

Surveys indicate between 20 and 25 percent of people in the U.S. deal with a mental illness in a year's time, said Russell, a licensed clinical professional counselor, licensed sex-offender treatment provider and semi-retired minister.

While he's still trying to come up with the best way to define it, he said mental illness is "something as least impactful as an adjustment disorder all the way to a more severe impact such as schizophrenia."

"All of us deal with stressors in our lives at different points," he said. "Most of the time, we're able to overcome them, and part of that is because of the lessons we've learned in life or advice we might get from friends and family. But in some cases, the stressors, for whatever reason, are more than we can handle."

Russell said if left untreated, mental illness only gets worse.

"We see that clearly with our physical health," he said. "If I develop heart disease, and I don't go to the doctor and get treated or take medication, then I'm only going to get worse. The same is true for mental illness. If I don't get treatment, if I don't get help, it's only going to get worse.

"The flip side is also true," he continued. "The earlier I get treatment, the better chance I have of recovery, whether it's a physical illness or a mental illness."

The awareness and education campaign is an outgrowth of the Vermilion County Mental Health Initiative, which began as a suicide-prevention effort in 2015. Its motto is "It's OK not to be OK."

"We wanted to address more things than just suicide," Russell said, adding the committee was able to apply for a grant through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to provide youth mental-health first-aid training for three years. Under that grant, he and Project Director Beth Bray Knecht trained more than 2,000 people in Vermilion, Iroquois, Clark and Edgar counties.

When that grant ended, Russell won a Vermilion Healthcare Foundation grant.

"Our goal ... is to train 700 people before the end of September," he said, adding they're about halfway there.

The free eight-hour workshop teaches people how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance-abuse disorders by providing them with initial support and helping to connect them to appropriate care. Participants who successfully complete the training receive a three-year certification in mental-health first aid, along with a 200-page resource manual.

"I hear people say, 'What can I do? I'm not a professional. I can't counsel people,'" Russell said. "Here's what you can do: Take the training. If you take the training, you'll be better equipped to help people who are in crisis.

He and Knecht have conducted training at schools; among OSF Sacred Heart staff and volunteers; for police, fire and probation officers; at churches; and at other groups. Of 88 agencies that provided the training, the local mental-health initiative's program ranked sixth in terms of number of participants, training evaluations and meeting goals.

"We're going to try to get funding for another grant year," Russell said. "Even if we don't get funding, our board is still committed to providing the training. It'll just cost people."

Other activities include:

— Mental-health topics are being featured prominently on WDAN Radio's "Newsmakers" program, hosted by Linda Bolton. It airs at 7:30 a.m. on 1490-AM and can be accessed on the station's website.

— A social-media campaign, primarily on Facebook (@VermilionCountyMentalHealthInitiative). Brittany Morris, a counselor with the Vermilion Association for Special Education, will post about mental-health first-aid trainings, links to service providers and other news items.

— The Mental Health 708 Board, health department, OSF and a number of community partners will sponsor a mental-health wellness expo Oct. 3 at the Second Church of Christ. The featured speaker is award-winning mental-health advocate Kevin Hines, who tried to commit suicide in 2000 by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and is one of only 36 (less than 1 percent) to have survived the fall. He has shared his story through public-speaking engagements worldwide; in a 2006 film, "The Bridge"; in his 2013 memoir, "Cracked, Not Broken: Surviving and Thriving After A Suicide Attempt"; and his own documentary, "Suicide: The Ripple Effect."

"We are engaging as many partners as we can during the week to highlight the resources available," said Russell, who encourages community members to get involved in the initiative, which meets monthly. "Too often, people think they have nowhere to turn if they realize the need. But help is available."

Trainings continue in summer

The Vermilion County Mental Health 708 Board will hold mental-health first-aid trainings on June 4, July 25, Aug. 14 and Sept. 11 and youth mental-health first-aid trainings on June 18, July 11, Aug. 28 and Sept. 18.

They will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the board's offices, 200 S. College St., Danville.

There will also be youth mental-health first-aid training from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. June 6 at the Hoopeston Multi-Agency, 206 S. First Ave.

Companies, churches, organizations or other community groups may also host a private training by contacting Knecht at 217-516-2298 or or Russell at 217-443-3500 or

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