Personal stories of trials and triumphs serve as a basic means of communication. You may or may not relate the ones in this article, but they may surely resonate with you.
NAMI to host symposium on wellness 100312 HEALTH 1 Capital City Weekly Personal stories of trials and triumphs serve as a basic means of communication. You may or may not relate the ones in this article, but they may surely resonate with you.

Photo By Marion Quigley.

Robyn Priest.

Photo By Amy Pierce

Carolyn Marsalis.

Photo By Tammy Heinz

Amy Pierce.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Story last updated at 10/2/2012 - 1:11 pm

NAMI to host symposium on wellness

Personal stories of trials and triumphs serve as a basic means of communication. You may or may not relate the ones in this article, but they may surely resonate with you.

Mental Illness Awareness Week is Oct. 7 through the 13, and the Juneau chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness is recognizing the week with several events.

As October is Disability Awareness month, NAMI is partnering with Southeast Alaska Independent Living to host the Run, Walk and Roll Poker Run on Oct. 6. This will be the second annual "race," that includes five required stops where participants in either the five-kilometer or one-mile divisions will receive a playing card. The stops include SAIL, the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health, the Juneau Family Birth Center, Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium and at Bartlett Regional Hospital. Each participant should, by the finish line, have a set of five playing cards. Prizes will be awarded for the best hand of cards and the top finishers.

"The term 'disability' is very wide-ranging," said Tristan Knutson-Lombardo of SAIL.

Many people, he said, associate the word "disability" with the blue parking spaces adjacent to building entrances, or with wheel chairs.

"But people self-identify as having a disability with poor vision or mental health; a cognitive impairment. The scope of what a disability is (much) wider," he said.

This is why partnering with NAMI for an event like the poker race is beneficial: it will serve to highlight the connection between the services the two organizations offer.

"One of the things that SAIL does is connect the people with resources," Knutson-Lombardo said.

In addition to the poker race, NAMI is celebrating the Mental Illness Awareness Week by taking a different angle in its recognition: what does it take to be healthy?

"What NAMI Juneau wants to do is bring attention to wellness," Kathryn Chapman, NAMI Juneau's executive director said.

The organization is hosting a Symposium on Wellness on Oct. 8. The evening will include a Wellness Fair where representatives of organizations focusing on well being will be present, including Rainforest Yoga, the Juneau Shambhala Center and various mental health services.

Chapman explained that the idea for a Wellness Symposium was appealing as all recovery stories are unique.

"It's not a cookie cutter thing," Chapman said.

She wanted to present to the community different ways people could take control of their own wellbeing.

"My idea was to have this time and space for someone to come in and think, 'Maybe meditation could work for me,' just give people options," Chapman said.

The Symposium will feature three speakers following the fair: Amy Pierce and Carolyn Marsalis who will share about their personal struggles and triumphs with mental illnesses, and Robyn Priest, the executive director of the Alaska Peer Support Consortium.

Both Pierce and Marsalis have found a road to recovery by similar measures - their diets - though they both, as well as Chapman, emphasize that these are individual stories, and reflect personal choices and discoveries and cannot necessarily serve to advocate treatment measures for a broad spectrum of those suffering from mental illnesses.

Pierce grew up in eastern Texas. She was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder when she was in sixth-grade. As Pierce began her struggles at an early age, she hadn't accumulated any exposure or education about the prevalence of mental illnesses. She was terrified her peers would discover that she was somehow different. Her early way of coping was to emulate those around her, people she saw as carefree, or normal.

"It was very hard," Pierce, who is now 38, recollected. "I was always trying to watch people. How they would act and react. I didn't feel joy and happiness but I didn't want people to learn how dark it was inside, so I laughed when they laughed; I'd watch facial expressions."

By the time Pierce was in high school she was experiencing extreme anxiety and paranoia on a regular basis. She also began hallucinating and self-medicating.

"I ate a lot and drank a lot in order go to sleep, to make my head be quiet, to make my skin not hurt," she said. "Everything always hurt. It hurt to be around people."

She attempted suicide numerous times and was first hospitalized in a psychiatric unit her junior year in high school. As word got out about her hospitalization her peers made "Crazy Amy" jokes, she said, and wrote notes about her on the walls of the bathroom stalls at her high school. Pierce didn't sound bitter; she blamed her mistreatment on the lack of awareness of mental illnesses.

Upon graduating high school Pierce enrolled at Texas Tech University. She stopped taking her antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety medications.

Pierce's suicide attempts continued. She was concerned she would be "locked up" in a psychiatric hospital if she spoke openly or truthfully with friends or professionals. Pierce completed her freshman year at Texas Tech with a grade point average below a 1.0.

"Here's where life gets funny," Pierce said.

It was the summer of 1993. Pierce went to a six-week program at a treatment center. Carolyn Marsalis was working as an intern at the center while pursuing a graduate degree.

"For the first time I felt heard; someone saw me, not the things I had done wrong or the lies I had told," Pierce said. "She saw me. I was able to trust her and share some things that had occurred in my life."

It was not just empathy that Marsalis, who is now 51,was able to give Pierce. Marsalis, who grew up in a town in west central Texas, had been diagnosed with depression at the age of 15.

"As far back as I can remember, I had a sense that I was different," she said. Marsalis also went to Texas Tech as an undergraduate. "It took me a really long time to get through. I quit many times. I didn't graduate until I was 30."

Around this time she was additionally diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder.

Marsalis later went on to receive a master's degree in Counseling and Human Development from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. She credits a high school counselor for influencing her choice of discipline to study.

She also credits sheer will power and determination.

"I strong armed my way through it."

She was often sick and anemic, but with the exception of depression and anxiety she was otherwise healthy. So her poor health was always blamed on her mental illnesses.

But Marsalis wasn't satisfied with her "strong arming" approach to life. She had a graduate degree and professional training and used them to explore the simple fact with complicated solutions that something didn't make sense.

"If someone is crying all the time and is reasonably intelligent, you have to look for answers, so that's what I did," Marsalis said.

She was cognoscente enough to understand that her self-esteem was taking a brutal beating.

"Even the degrees quickly faded as wins," she said. Her profession required her to be there for other people. "You can't call in sick. You have to be there."

So Marsalis changed careers. She became a life coach.

For a few years after finishing her treatment program Pierce was in and out of an assortment of treatment facilities and had made death a goal for herself.

In August of 1996 she was spending the days at a hospital and the evenings at a boarding care home a 30 minute drive from the hospital. One day, before leaving for the boarding home, she downed a bottle of antipsychotic medication and half a bottle of another psychiatric medication. The idea was that the medication wouldn't affect her until she was safe in her boarding house room, and come morning, she just wouldn't rise, ever again.

Pierce did make it to the boarding house. But upon heading up to her room she succumbed to a nightly routine she had developed: asking what was for dinner.

"I never made it to the room," Pierce said.

She woke up a few days later in the Intensive Care Unit of the Terrell State Hospital, Texas' psychiatric care facility.

"I was alive. I was mad as hell." she said.

This wasn't Pierce's first visit to the state psychiatric hospital. A doctor who had seen her previously sat her down and told her she had a choice.

"She was all business. She scared me," Pierce said.

The doctor told her that the combination of medications she had taken could have left her physically paralyzed but not mentally.

"I could have been stuck with my body not responding but my brain functioning."

This prospect was scarier than living to her. Pierce was told she could be discharged and would probably die, or she could stay in the hospital and work with a specific psychologist. It would be the hardest thing she would do in her life, but she was told she could get better. This was the first time Pierce had heard the pendulum could actually swing another direction.

She spent a year there, going through a lot of therapy and having "A lot of conversations that were deeply impactful on my life," Piece said. "I had support and people who believed in me."

After two and a half years following her discharge she started working at the hospital. She started a program requiring every new staff member to hear her story and how the hospital impacted her. She rediscovered a book Marsalis had given her back when they had met at the treatment center, and decided to try and reconnect.

"I wanted to thank her and let her know the impact she had on me," Pierce said. "I wanted to let her know I was alive."

The two connected and shared their life experiences since they had last spoken. Pierce was then serving as the chair member of the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness program.

Six months later, in February of 2011, Marsalis called Pierce. Marsalis was then the peer support services supervisor at Terrell State Hospital, and was interested in Pierce's work. The conversation turned towards Marsalis' discovery of her food allergies. After befriending a woman working on her doctorate in holistic nutrition, Marsalis had started consuming a gluten-free diet, and her depression and anxiety had substantially subsided. Marsalis suggested that Pierce give it a try, mildly at first, cutting out pastas and breads.

"Looking back, when I totally lost it, I had put all that food back in my system when it had started to heal," Pierce said, comparing her diet while in the treatment center to after she completed the program. Marsalis recommended a two-week trial period.

"What happened," Pierce said, "Was that a whole new world opened up. There was a huge difference. I didn't feel like I was jumping out of my skin anymore. I could think and I could talk. The thoughts that always went around in a circle weren't going over and over."

The value of shared experience is key to Pierce's and Marsalis' recovery stories. It is also an integral component to Robyn Priest's life work.

Priest strongly believes that peer support should be an essential part of mental health services, just as important as having a psychiatrist. She was born and raised in Australia, and has worked in her native country, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. She said that out of all the financial support for mental health services in the U.S., on average less than one percent is designated for peer support. She quoted studies that showed that institution readmission rates of patients suffering from mental health illnesses was reduced by 20 percent when they had received treatment that included an adequate peer support component.

"Peer support for me is about people who have had similar experiences sharing their stories with others to get their lives back," Priest said.

It does make sense. When we want to learn something new, playing a new sport, trying ceramics or studying for an exam in a particular field, we learn from people who know what they're talking about and what they're teaching. Psychiatrists and other health professionals in the mental health field may be well educated, but they haven't all endured a mental illness themselves. Priest envisions a collaborative level of care where, if someone needs mental health services, he or she would be treated by medical professionals as well as peer supporters.

Priest said Alaska has been very receptive to the development of peer support groups. She credits this to the size of the state, the myriad of remote villages and the necessity to work together to survive.

"(Alaska has) been my most favorite place to work," Priest said. "This is the best job I've ever had."

Though both Pierce and Marsalis have found relief through their diet, Chapman explained that the point of the Symposium is about communicating.

"We know that nutrition plays an important role in all lives," Chapman said. "To consider it with respect to mental illness is something kind of new. The Symposium is about sharing stories of recovery and learning about options for self care, such as nutrition and various forms of support like peer support."

The Wellness Symposium begins at 5 p.m. on Oct. 8 at the Centennial Hall. Pierce and Marsalis will share their stories beginning at 6:30 p.m. Priest will speak at 7:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Other events NAMI is hosting during Mental Health Awareness Week include a presentation titled "Understanding Suicide: Building Intervention Skills," on Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. at the Aldersgate United Methodist Church; and a film showing called "When Medicine Got it Wrong," a documentary about how NAMI was started. The film will be shown on Oct. 10 at 5:30 p.m. at the Silverbow Inn and Bakery. Following the hour-long film, NAMI Juneau will hold its Annual Membership meeting, and the community is encouraged to attend and learn more about the organization and how to become a member as well as a volunteer. Both the presentation and the film are free.

To register or for more information on the poker race, contact SAIL at or NAMI at

Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at