NAMI unmasks mental illness with first-ever masquerade

Posted: Sunday, November 15, 2009

On Oct. 23, more than 200 members from the community came together to promote mental illness awareness at the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Juneau's first annual Unmasking Mental Illness Masquerade at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center.

The event consisted of a "What Does Mental Illness Look Like?" mask competition, health provider information tables, prizes, snacks and dancing throughout the evening.

Ninety Juneau-Douglas High School health students participated in the event by constructing masks that portrayed what mental illness looked like to them. An artist statement explaining the significance of each design accompanied every student's mask.

Prior to the event, NAMI-Juneau taught during Mental Illness Awareness Week at JDHS with the help of health teacher Nancy Seamount. Students learned about different kinds of mental illnesses and disabilities, their history and treatment. Understanding perspective, stereotyping and social stigma also were key points.

"The profound insights students articulated are evidence of the tremendous mental shift they experienced as a result of the NAMI-Juneau activities," Seamount said.

Evaluations conducted before and after the Unmasking Mental Illness Masquerade event documented this shift in student perspective. When asked if they consider themselves advocates for those with mental illness or disabilities: 92 percent of students answered yes, compared to 18 percent before the event. In addition, 100 percent reported they would be comfortable around someone with a mental illness, compared to just 35 percent before the event.

"The outreach to Juneau youth by NAMI-Juneau has been phenomenal," Seamount said. "Executive Director Laura Manley - with support from the NAMI-Juneau Board - has constructed a solid network that is well integrated with the JDHS health curriculum. Manley's unique skill set has allowed her to educate, challenge and galvanize students from all races, ages, economic levels and interest groups to become passionate advocates for people with mental illness."

Mental Illness is typically a taboo topic among teens, reflecting the norms of the larger American culture, and is generally recognized as being one of the last frontiers of social acceptance and understanding. Societal insight and non-judgment of mental illness issues still lag behind attitudes toward chemical dependency.

"One quarter of our students' lives are touched in some way by mental illness," Seamount said. "By successfully connecting with JDHS culture, NAMI-Juneau has increased the safety and sense of belonging for all of our students. I want to personally thank the organization for making youth outreach and education a priority."

NAMI-Juneau is an affiliate of the NAMI National organization and is dedicated to breaking down the negative stigmas of mental illness through education, support, and advocacy.

• Laura Manley is the executive director of NAMI-Juneau.

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