Combating mental illness

Resident raises money for mental health organization

May 8, 2008

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

When Williston resident Sara Moran discovered a member of her family had been diagnosed with a mental illness, she was unsure of where to turn. She looked for help, but found there wasn't much out there.

But with continued searching Moran found the Family-to-Family program, offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. The program, a free, 12-week course for family caregivers of mentally ill individuals, was just what Moran had been looking for.

"I learned so much from taking the course," Moran said. "It's strongly about education and advocacy for those with mental illnesses."

After Moran took the Family-to-Family course, she was so impressed that she decided to become a course instructor. It's not an uncommon step, according to NAMI Vermont President Ann Moore, who said individuals like Moran and herself become so grateful for the organization's help that they devote much of their spare time working for mental health advocacy.

"We want people to learn they're not alone in dealing with these things," said Moore, a South Burlington resident.

This year, Moran is chairing the 2008 NAMI Walk, the largest fundraiser for the organization's Waterbury-based Vermont chapter. The five-kilometer walk takes place on Saturday, May 17 in Montpelier. This year's theme is to break the stigma behind mental illness, Moran said.

"No one seems to have a problem with walking for heart disease, diabetes or cancer," Moore said. "There's never really been a walk for mental illness because of the stigma."

Moore said the walk is a chance for the public to learn about the organization and mental illness.

"Our goal is to encourage people to learn about the illness and abolish the stigma," Moran said. "We really need to work to break down the barriers so people will feel comfortable getting the help they need."

According to the national NAMI Web site, one in five Americans has been touched by mental illnesses in his or her family. Vermont has 42,000 people with a serious or persistent mental illness, according to the NAMI Vermont Web site.

Erin Evarts, NAMI Vermont's development coordinator, said the group focuses on posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, as well as other illnesses.

Moore said NAMI Vermont has three goals: supporting families affected by mental illness; educating the public on facts and dispelling myths; and advocating to improve the mental healthcare system in Vermont.

Moran also said NAMI Vermont works with the correctional system to find and treat inmates with mental disorders.

"Vermont is fairly progressive, but in terms of corrections, we still have a ways to go," she said.

The walk

Evarts said more than 100 NAMI affiliates across the country hold walks in the spring and fall. They have become the organization's largest fundraisers, Evarts said.

In Vermont, walkers begin on the steps of the State Capitol Building in Montpelier and follow the Winooski River to the Peace Park before returning. The 3.5-mile trip is doable for all abilities, Moran said.

"We encourage people to come and walk with us because it's the strength in the numbers that counts most," she said.

There will be music and food at the event, as well as guest speaker Michael Hartman, Vermont's health commissioner. Rep. Peter Welch is tentatively scheduled to be on hand, Moran said.

Last year, the walk raised more than $43,000 for NAMI, which gets its funding almost exclusively from private and corporate donations. Moran said tough economic times this year have made fundraising more difficult, but she's confident the group can meet its $50,000 goal by the time the walk begins.

Moran said she raised more than $400 by knocking on doors in her neighborhood near the Williston Country Club.

"I'm more than grateful to all my generous neighbors," she said.

The NAMI Vermont Walk takes place on May 17 in Montpelier. Registration begins at 9:30 a.m., with the walk starting at 11 a.m. Walkers can bring donations to the event, or donate online at To support Sara Moran, click the link to "Support a Walker." For more information, call 244-1396