Mental Health awareness efforts on the rise in El Paso

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El Paso KVIA-TV weather anchor Iris Lopez, 29, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years ago. She was 27 and said she automatically linked “mental health illness” with “crazy.”

“I would experience mood swings that were difficult for me to control at times. My moods would quickly change from extreme sadness to extreme happiness,” Lopez said. When it came to seeking help, she found that The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) was the organization that helped her the most.

“NAMI has really been the program to help me come to terms with having a mental illness. Knowing that other people deal with the same issues helped feel like I was not alone,” Lopez said.

El Paso organizations like NAMI have been working hard in recent years to increase education and advocacy for those affected by mental health illnesses in the community. Isidro Torres, NAMI’s outreach and fundraising coordinator, said: “NAMI El Paso’s mission is to provide advocacy, education and support to those in the community who are suffering from mental health conditions and their loved ones through free presentations, educational programs, and any other support we can provide.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, “one in five adults in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year.” When that number is brought to the local level, it increases to one in four El Pasoans, according to Nellie Mendoza the interim director of programs for NAMI.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Individuals living with serious mental illnesses face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions. Untreated or undiagnosed mental health conditions can lead to aggressive behaviors, depression, and even suicide in extreme cases.

A major issue surrounding mental illness is the negative stigma that is given to those affected.

“It’s a touchy subject and they’d rather keep it to themselves, which is especially true here in El Paso where we have a large Hispanic culture,” Torres said. “From religion to the machismo culture, people don’t want to admit and say ‘I have a mental health condition, this is what I’m going through.'”

When Lopez first opened up about her disorder she said many people wrote to tell her “that they themselves have always felt depressed or had suicidal thoughts but never knew what to do about it.”

One way NAMI is promoting mental health illness awareness and education is through annual Mental Health Awareness walks. NAMI sponsored its sixth annual walk in El Paso in September to raise awareness.

“In the first walk, which was in 2011, we raised a little over $20,000; last year we raised over $60,000,” Torres said. “This year we have a little over 320 participants and last year we only had 276 so we are seeing numbers increase to help us fight the stigma against mental health.”

Jennifer Perez, 33, walked with Team PMT, a local manufacturing company, at the NAMI event this year.

“We’re walking to raise awareness in general. We think that mental health issues are really important to bring to the forefront right now and a lot of people in our area and across the U.S are struggling with mental health issues,” Perez said.

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