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AROUND TOWN: Grassroots NAMI helps the community recognize mental illness

May 24, 2015 Updated: May 24, 2015 at 4:15 am
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Camille Bzdek Blakely, right, and her daughter, Patrice Winsor, hug after sharing their story of "Managing Mental Illness as a Team." 050615 Photo by Linda Navarro

Two stylish, polished and accomplished women took the stage May 6 in front of 510 breakfast guests. Any other day, they could have been convention speakers, sharing secrets of business success. But that morning, Camille Bzdek Blakely and her daughter, Patrice Winsor, stunned attendees, opening their personal lives with "Creativity, Finesse and Love: How to Manage Mental Illness as a Team."

At the "Embracing the Light" community breakfast, a fundraiser for National Alliance on Mental Illness, executive director Lori Jarvis-Steinwert said, "We underestimate how many people have a personal experience with mental illness in their lives, either their own mental health challenges or those of a loved one."

For Camille and Patrice, it's personal. Patrice, her mother explained, suffers from bipolar disorder, major anxiety disorder and ADHD, while "I struggle with serious anxiety and depression." Mother and daughter "actively manage our illnesses together. We ask each other for perspective, patience, area and love."

Camille, president of marketing for the advertising agency Blakely & Co., said she has five siblings in successful careers that include entertainment, journalism, psychology and renewable energy.

"Every single one of us struggles with serious mental illness," she said.

Over the past 20 years, she has seen her family members deal with an incredible list of illnesses and problems, ranging from bipolar and narcissistic personality disorders to eating disorders, divorce, child abuse, alcoholism and even hospitalizations and incarceration.

Camille told a rapt, quiet room at Cheyenne Mountain Resort, "There are disabilities you can see and not see. Mental illness is a disability you cannot see."

Because she has been open with her story, people reach out to her for support and advice.

"This is an honor and a privilege," she said. "It is up to us to bring it out into the light so people can more fully understand what it is and to not be so afraid."

"I'm so proud of my daughter," Camille said.

Patrice, 22, who graduated cum laude last week with a double major from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, will study toward a doctorate in psychology. However, she shared that there were mornings that she struggled to get out of bed because of depression.

Once, after emailing a professor to say she would miss class, she received an unexpected reply. The professor hadn't been able to come to class a few weeks earlier because she, too, suffered depression.

"Here was a woman with a PhD who had days she couldn't get out of bed but still continued to live her life, and live it honestly.," she said.

For Patrice, her support system is, most frequently, her mom - to "sit with me and maybe hold my hand while I am going through indescribably, all-encompassing pain. When she can't be there, what I need are my safe places. I also ask myself a series of safety check questions."

What Patrice has learned managing her mental illness is to "not waste time feeling shame for not feeling OK.

"In a society where days off for mental health are generally not acceptable, we must also learn to cope in the small moments of everyday life," she said. "For me it can be something like listening to a CD in my car where I can practice regulating my breathing."

Mother and daughter have learned to surround themselves with people they love.

"None of us can do it alone," Camille said.

As they left the stage to an ovation, they were swept up in their "safe place," enveloped into the arms of their family and friends.

Also sharing her story was NAMI volunteer Carrie Baatz, community organizing coordinator for The Independence Center, who said when she was 19 and a college sophomore something frightening happened. Like many students, she studied or simply stayed up all night, forgot to eat and got little sleep. Then insomnia took over and she stopped sleeping and eating altogether.

"I became mentally ill," she said. "I was slipping into another reality."

Taken to an emergency room, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features. A therapist called her "handicapped."

"I know what it's like, like many others do, to wear a mask, expending so much of my energy to cover my experiences with anxiety, depression or mania, out of fear that the truth about my illness will be exposed, and I will be rejected or fired," she said.

The Independence Center empowers people with disabilities.

"Once I was diagnosed with a mental illness, it was no longer a given that I would be a working adult," she said.

She cited a NAMI report in June 2014 that said that most adults diagnosed with mental illness want to work but, in Colorado, three quarters of them are unemployed.

NAMI head Jarvis-Steinwert said the $85,000 goal for the breakfast fundraiser will launch two programs: Ending the Silence, an education and early-intervention program targeted to middle school and high school students, and Homefront, targeted to active-duty and veteran military families who have a loved one with mental health issues.

In addition, Mental Health First Aid Colorado classes help community members learn to recognize symptoms of mental illness.

Named NAMI Volunteer of the Year was Cheryl Stine; Advocates of Year, Mental Health Begins With Me.

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