Montana is a big state with a big heart. It is also a state with a very big problem related to mental illness.

Mental illness strikes one out of every 17 adults and children, and one in five families. In reality, mental illness affects us all because it afflicts precious children, parents and friends, disrupts families, depletes finances and influences every aspect of community life, including schools, churches and businesses. 

The problems of mental illness are more acute in an expansive, rural state like Montana. The state ranks in the top 10 nationally for suicides. Depression and behavioral disorders here are made worse by isolation and long, cold winters.

The realities of mental illness hit my own family six years ago. My oldest daughter began to struggle with obsessive compulsive behavior and, subsequently, an eating disorder. As we worked through treatment with her, our family discovered how widespread mental health issues are in Montana, and how severely families are affected.

Our family was blessed in that we could find and afford treatment. For many Montanans, however, essential mental health care is hard to access due to travel distances, and also difficult to afford. Lack of insurance and restrictive limits in coverage mean most families cannot afford the services they need. It is not unusual for families to give up just about everything to get help for the ones they love.

Addressing the problems of mental health is made more difficult because it is a disease many would rather ignore. Some think mental illness is shameful, or somehow the result of moral failure or a character flaw. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mental illness is a very real disease, with real options for treatment and genuine hope for a better future. The more light we can shine on mental illness, the closer we will come to erasing prejudice and eliminating barriers that stand between suffering and a cure.

Current attitudes toward mental illness remind me of the way people once reacted to cancer. Decades ago “cancer” was a word that would only be whispered. Stricken families suffered alone, isolated from community and friends. Thankfully those days are long gone, and cancer care and family support have advanced wonderfully due to greater public awareness and concern. In 2007, our family created a foundation to help bring about similar advances for mental illness.

Among the very best working to elevate awareness and change perceptions of mental illness is NAMI Montana, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI Montana works in communities across the state to support, educate and advocate for Montanans with severe mental illnesses and also their families. 

There are NAMI affiliates in Billings, Bozeman, Havre, Helena, the Flathead Valley, Lewistown, Livingston and Missoula that teach classes, lead support groups and help our friends and neighbors cope with mental illness. They provide exceptional programs, most of them free. 

I have seen personally how much NAMI Montana does to improve the lives of Montana families. A great example of NAMI Montana in action is their Family-to-Family Education Program that helps families understand and cope with the symptoms of severe mental illness. This course has literally been a lifesaver for many. 

NAMI Montana’s most important fundraising event (and its most fun) is its annual NAMI Walk, which this year will be held in Helena on Sunday, Sept. 25. Despite the sparse population of our state, the NAMI Walk in Montana is one of the largest and most successful in the nation. That’s testimony not only to the big-heartedness of our people, but also to the success of NAMI Montana in bringing mental illness out of the shadows and into the sunshine.

The ambitious goal for this year’s walk is $125,000. The money is very important, but truly not as important as the awareness and encouragement that come from all of us pitching in and working together.  

I am pleased to report that for the fourth consecutive year the people of Cellular One will be supporting the NAMI Walk through sponsorship and a lot of shoe leather. Cellular One employees from across the state are volunteering their time to collect donations. Many of them will, on their own, drive to Helena Sept. 25 to be a part of NAMI Walk. 

Let me encourage everyone across the state to be a part of the NAMI Walk, either in person or in spirit. Donations and sponsorships can be arranged through the NAMI Montana website (namimt.org) or by calling 443-7871.

Thank you for your support of NAMI Montana, and I’ll see you at the Walk.

Jonathan Foxman is the president and CEO of Cellular One and the executive director of the Family Support Foundation for Mental Illness.

(1) comment

Curmudgeon

Agreed, Mr. Foxman -- especially about mediaeval attitudes toward the mentally ill. We don't consider it "shameful" when people have diabetes or arthritis -- why should mental illness be different?

A dear friend in central California, now in her 60s, has been hospitalized several times for the problem. Keeps it under control with medication. Meantime, she works, is self-supporting, pays taxes, is a useful, contributing member of her community, plays violin in the local symphony, etc.

She has a most refreshing attitude. She once told me, "I'm healthy as a horse --- I'm just mentally ill, is all."

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