Last weekend’s National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Connecticut Walk raised critical funds for NAMI’s incredible programs for people affected by mental illness.

NAMI provides support, education, and advocacy to hundreds of thousands of families, educators, mental health service providers, and law enforcement professionals each year, at no cost to the participants. NAMI Fairfield is our local affiliate that serves Fairfield and the surrounding towns.

As a long-time fan of NAMI and a Westport mental health professional myself, I had the pleasure of joining the team at Sherwood Island State Park for the first-ever NAMI CT Walk in Fairfield County. The event was wonderful. The sun was shining, there was light breeze coming off Long Island Sound, the band was playing and, most importantly, people had gathered together in support of a wonderful cause.

People representing different groups, individuals, and programs were smiling and engaging with one another — discussing their missions and their reasons for participating. Between the two May 18 NAMI CT Walks (Sherwood Island, Westport and Bushnell Park, Hartford) over $100,000 was raised, to date.

I was able to connect with wonderful individuals and groups from all over the state with shared missions, including: spreading awareness of NAMI, decreasing stigma around mental illness, letting the community know that no one needs to suffer from mental illness alone, and fundraising so NAMI can continue to offer its programming at no cost to the community.

I participated in the event because, as a Westport psychotherapist, I see firsthand the struggles that my clients and their families experience. I am passionate about education and advocacy surrounding mental illness and in helping to spread the word about organizations like NAMI who do great work in the community. I believe that together we can raise awareness and help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness so that all people can access helpful resources and live without feeling judged or alone.

In speaking with participants, I asked, “Why do you walk?” The responses were moving. I’ll share some of them (with permission given) here:

Ally from “Ally’s Army” brought with her a huge team of excited, green T-shirt-clad individuals. She shared about her experience being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder after years of depression, anxiety, and being in and out of therapy. She described that “getting answers and learning there was a diagnosis for my experience was so helpful. I signed up for the NAMI CT walk to help spread the message that you are not alone.”

Joey from Elevate Society described that their team “cares for mental health because it is such a huge factor in living a healthy and balanced life. Many of us with mental illnesses struggle with acceptance, hope, care, and love because of the stigma associated with speaking up. It can cause people to bottle up their emotions, and over time, there are fatal results. We feel it’s important to get loud about the truth of mental health and know that mental illnesses are valid. Simply reaching out to someone & talking about it is a critical step that may save a life. Together we can end the stigma.”

Tammy from The Spire School in Stamford, a small therapeutic school serving grades 6-12, stated that she is a “big believer in supporting those with mental illness, providing the education needed, and removing the stigma.”

One participant stated, “My boyfriend has suffered with depression for so long, and when it gets bad he isolates himself and suffers alone. I think he does it because he feels like a burden on his family and friends, which is so sad. NAMI helps teach family and friends how to care for and love someone with mental illness, which is so important so that we can really be there for our loved ones and they won’t have to be alone.”

Loretta Jay, President of NAMI Fairfield, described her motivation to spread awareness and to let people in the community know that no one needs to be alone. She stated, “It is inspiring to see how the community comes together to enjoy and support one another. NAMI becomes a second family for so many people, and being able to be a part of the Walk creates a terrific opportunity for togetherness.

I am so moved to have been a part of the event, and excited to continue to participate with NAMI Fairfield in future programming and events. NAMI Fairfield’s mission is, “To build resilience and improve the lives of those affected by mental illness in our community through education, resources, support and advocacy.” In reflecting on the walk, it is easy to see that the team continues to model their mission in all the work they do. The May 18 walk is one great example of many incredible NAMI events. Keep up the great work, NAMI! Your community thanks you.

More information about NAMI Fairfield and the free programs offered can be found at www.namiFairfield.org. A link to make a donation to the NAMI CT Walk can be found there too.

Caroline H. Schiff is a psychotherapist and licensed master social worker (LMSW) who practices in downtown Westport. She enjoys all things related to health and wellness and spends as much time as possible on the beach.