Task force tackles mental illness

Stan Baxter, Community Education Mental Health Task Force member, brainstorms mental health public outreach with fellow task force members Terry Ann Gallagher, left, and Shawnie McAdams. - Paul Boring/Whidbey News-Times
Stan Baxter, Community Education Mental Health Task Force member, brainstorms mental health public outreach with fellow task force members Terry Ann Gallagher, left, and Shawnie McAdams.
— image credit: Paul Boring/Whidbey News-Times

A newly-formed task force is examining mental health issues from every angle in an effort to de-stigmatize mental illness and help those afflicted.

The Community Education Mental Health Task Force, comprised of agency and elected leaders, health care professionals and concerned community members, recently met for its third meeting, days before the beginning of National Mental Health Month.

“This was a perfect time to let the public know what we have planned and what we have been working on,” said Cathy Niiro, task force member and executive director of United Way of Island County.

The eight members hit the subject matter hard, challenging and engaging each other in pointed discussion; prodding and brainstorming; listening and building on the burgeoning ideas.

The concept for the task force grew out of last October’s United Way-sponsored mental health forum held in Oak Harbor. A cross section of more than 50 stakeholders attended the forum.

“This is an illness, but people can recover and live a normal life,” said Stan Baxter, Compass Health director for Whidbey and Camano islands, at the task force meeting.

Baxter added that mental health will continue to be stigmatized until direct, relatable public education can be etched indelibly in the minds of community members.

“We will continue to battle misconceptions,” Baxter said. “They run the entire gamut.”

The task force, although supported by local government, is not currently a recipient of funds generated by the Mental Health Sales Tax Initiative the Board of Island County Commissioners adopted in 2007 to raise money for local mental health needs. At this point the group has no official standing with the Island County government.

County Commissioner John Dean, like the other volunteers, joined the task force to help build awareness. He was not looking for or expecting a panacea. He was committing himself to a group that possesses the ability to markedly alter public awareness.

“I joined the citizens’ grassroots task force because, like the other volunteers, I am personally interested in trying to erase social stigmas and prejudices attached to mental illness,” Dean said.

The task force immediately delved into the daunting task of forming a plan to not only reach entire communities but to drive home the realities surrounding mental illness and make clear the damage caused by ignorance and irrational fear.

Shawnie McAdams, director of vocational services at New Leaf Inc., said the stigma has manifested itself in overt employment discrimination.

“The stigma can be so great that with employees, some people would rather say they have been in jail than in the hospital,” McAdams said. “We badly need public outreach.”

She added that other illnesses are not saddled with the same harsh judgement.

“Nobody tells someone who has a diabetes problem to ‘snap out of it,’” she said.

The state Legislature last year addressed the issue by strengthening anti-discrimination laws for all people with disabilities, including those with mental health problems.

Dean agreed that other diseases do not face the unfair scrutiny heaped on mental illness.

“We don’t blow off cancer or stroke patients and say they need to get a grip, yet many of us fail to recognize mental illnesses and wonder why anyone with a mental illness doesn’t just ‘get over it,’” the commissioner said. “The result often is a whole lot of embarrassment and hiding of people with problems ending up in mentally ill people failing to ask for help and failing to get well.”

Going back to childhood

Terry Ann Gallagher, who suffers from the effects of childhood trauma, has confronted her fears and now lends her unique perspective to the task force in hopes that her experiences can help bring about awareness. Gallagher also serves on the North Sound Mental Health Administration Advisory Board and NSMHA Planning Committee.

“She shows that there is hope,” Niiro said before the meeting. “That to me is amazing. She’s an advocate and a fearless one.”

Baxter said many problems begin early with adverse childhood experiences, or ACE.

“Childhood experiences can dictate the future life circumstances and even the contraction of certain diseases,” the Compass Health director said.

Rather than waver over ideas that may or may not be viable, the group packed April with its first full-blow educational onslaught. From utilizing every media available, to setting up presentations for Baxter and his impressive bank of knowledge, to allowing people suffering from mental illness an opportunity, like Gallagher, to share their stories.

“People need to understand that their condition is not insurmountable,” Niiro said.

Baxter has already trained with Whidbey General Hospital to learn methods for deescalating situations. He will now augment has training with law enforcement instruction.

“We’re making this as widespread as we can,” Niiro said. “It’s all of us coming together and seeing a need. Everybody brings something to the table.”

The county’s mental health statistics reveal a startling number of residents of all ages who have been stricken with severe depression and even thoughts of suicide.

“We need to remind ourselves that there are few among us who have never felt depressed or lost for weeks under a phantom cloud of stress or worry,” Dean said. “The best we can say about ourselves is that our lives are all in process, and some of us are more ‘sane’ than others, depending on the day.”

For more information about upcoming programs and education opportunities, Cathy Niiro, 675-1778 or email

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