by Chris Price
The numbers are staggering, but, so too is the stigma. One in five adults in America experiences a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Yet many don’t know that they have it or are at risk. Even those who are diagnosed often have trouble finding resources to help themselves deal with and treat it. Too often that results in an individual altering behaviors, withdrawing from their friends and family and becoming increasingly isolated.
When Becca Stallmann and Elijah Lovan heard about the positive impacts the augmented reality mobile game Pokémon Go was having on people with depression and anxiety in the summer of 2016, the two University of Central Arkansas graduates decided to host a mental health-related social event centered on playing the game and sharing information on Conway’s available resources.
“People were using Pokémon Go to kind of deal with their depression and anxiety,” Stallmann says. “It was making them feel comfortable, taking them out of the house and interacting with people and really kind of helping them work through some of these mental health issues they’ve been struggling with.”
The pair organized a cookout and charity fundraiser around an afternoon of enjoying the game, which uses a mobile device’s GPS function to help the player locate, capture, battle, and train virtual Pokémon creatures that appear as if they are in the player’s real-world location.
“We didn’t really have any connections at the time, but it went really well,” she says. “The community was excited to have a pretty neutral place to come and talk about mental health and feel connected with other people that shared their struggle.”
With their initial success, they wanted to expand the event and its potential audience. Little Rock and all of Central Arkansas was a natural choice.
Stallman, now a public health student and research technician in the Women’s Mental Health Program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, was introduced to Brad Martins, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at UAMS in the field of psychiatry and neuroscience, who was in the initial stages of trying to organize something beyond the traditional health fair. Stallmann and Lovan discussed their previous event and vision for its future with Martins. Their hopes and ideas melded, and they formed the Mental Illness & Neurodevelopmental Disorders (MIND) Coalition to help network local organizations across all areas of mental health to better connect Arkansans to the specific care they need.
The three Arkansas natives say they, family members or friends have been affected by depression and anxiety, and their motivation in forming the MIND Coalition is to increase awareness of and access to mental health care in Arkansas, eradicate the associated stigma and develop a role in policy and advocacy efforts that have limited awareness of mental health care.
“When you or someone you know is diagnosed with a mental illness, it’s often difficult to know where to start,” Lovan says. “Because prevention and treatment of mental illnesses require a comprehensive spectrum of care and resources, no single organization encompasses all aspects of mental health. Additionally, because there are so many organizations working in specific areas of mental health, it is often difficult to know which resources will meet your specific needs. We created the MIND Coalition to more effectively raise awareness of mental health and make resources available to those in need.”
This fall, the MIND Coalition will host its third annual MINDfest. The organization’s signature event includes a variety of vendors and speakers from across the spectrum of mental health and wellness to share their knowledge and personal stories in a comfortable and engaging environment where community members and mental health professionals can connect and share information. In addition to providing resources, vendors are encouraged to provide interactive style booths to increase engagement and impact among festival attendees. The festival also features live performances from local musicians and several activities for children.
“We didn’t want it to be a health fair,” Martins says. “We wanted it to be something where people actually had a reason besides mental health to come out just because it was a fun event. It was just this idea of creating an event that would bring the community and resources together.”
The response has been more than they expected.
“In the past few years that we’ve been doing this, one of the greatest issues we’ve seen and the feedback we’ve received from our vendors at the festival is, ‘I didn’t know that these resources exist for community members and other professionals,’” Stallmann says. “So that’s our main goal: educating and connecting resources with the community and with each other.”
Martins tells the story of a lawyer who suffered a brain injury and lost a lot of function and mobility as a result.
“He found out about MINDfest, came out and had no idea that there were all of these kinds of support groups for people going through similar things and need to get back to their baseline. He was so insanely grateful to learn about this. And seeing him realize that this was out there and he wasn’t alone in the struggle that he was going through is extremely gratifying.”
Having the social confirmation that people aren’t isolated in what they are going through and getting connected to other people with similar experiences can be, and often is, life-changing. Just being able to say, “I’m having this problem,” and asking someone else, “What have you done that works for you?” can make all the difference in one’s outlook, he says.
“People are talking about it, and that is part of the healing process,” Stallman says. “This is something a lot of people are dealing with.”
For more information about the MIND Coalition and MINDfest 2019, log on to mindcoalition.org.