It is no secret that mental illness – whether it’s depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia – carries a stigma, which makes it difficult for many to talk about their illness and seek help. Many don’t realize that most mental illnesses are common, treatable conditions, but if they’re ignored they can lead to grave outcomes.

The Bexar County Health Collaborative wants to help break the stigma associated with mental illnesses. On Aug. 26-27, the Health Collaborative and the County will host San Antonio’s first Pathways to Hope conference, a community-wide gathering that focuses on changing the conversation about mental illness and providing support and resources for those affected by it. The free conference at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts is for anyone living with a mental illness, family members and friends affected by mental illness, students, health care providers, social workers, educators, faith-based groups, and anyone else who feels compelled to help address this important issue.

More than 900 people have already pre-registered for the event, officials said at a Wednesday press conference, and they expect more than 1,000 to attend. Click here to register for one or both days of the event, and click here to volunteer.

In San Antonio, one in five families include someone living with a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). In other words, mental illness touches us all, said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

Judge Nelson Wolff announces that the County will host the first ever Pathways to Hope mental health conference. Photo by Camille Garcia.
Judge Nelson Wolff announces details about County’s first ever mental health conference Pathways to Hope. Photo by Camille Garcia.

“Mental health is an issue that for some 15 years that I’ve been County judge we’ve tried to address many different ways,” said Wolff, citing the County’s increased support for mental health treatment at the Center for Healthcare Services, therapeutic justice and diversion programs for mentally ill people caught up in the criminal justice system, and numerous other efforts.

“We’re doing everything within our power to (address mental health),” he said, “but it’s such a major problem.”

Dough Beach, executive director for San Antonio Clubhouse, says that the Pathways to Hope conference will help break the stigma of mental illness. Photo by Camille Garcia.
Dough Beach, NAMI president and chairperson for the Pathways to Hope Conference, says that the mental health conference will help break the stigma of mental illness. Photo by Camille Garcia.

That’s why when Doug Beach, NAMI president and chairperson for the Pathways to Hope Conference, approached the County to collaborate with them for the conference, the County was eager to give its support.

“The reason that people don’t seek help earlier in their illness is stigma. It’s the shame and embarrassment of having a mental illness,” Beach said. “We want to change the conversation so that people will seek help earlier and to do that they need the support of their community, the support of their families, and the support of other groups.”

Conference planners have engaged a number of local health and social organizations to get involved in the effort and have lined up a series of speakers to share their personal experiences with mental illnesses. Featured speakers include Dr. Dan Morehead, an Austin-based psychiatrist, Joe Padilla, co-founder and CEO of Mental Health Grace Alliance, and keynote speaker Kay Warren, co-founder of Saddleback Church in California, who will share the story of her mentally ill son who committed suicide a few years ago.

There will be small breakout and Q&A sessions to learn more about available resources in the community and how to react if a loved one shows signs of a mental illness. To see the conference agenda, click here.

A large part of planning the conference was centered around reaching out to the local faith-based community. Seventy percent of people impacted by mental illness approach a priest, pastor, rabbi, or other faith leader first, according to NAMI.

“It only makes sense to involve faith communities here to play a role in talking about (mental illness) because talking about mental illness and getting out of the shame of mental illness is the first step toward acceptance and treatment and living a full, meaningful life,” said Mark Stoeltje, executive director of the San Antonio Clubhouse, an international mental health self-help program operated in part by men and women recovering from mental illness.

It’s one thing for a healthcare professional to diagnose someone with a mental health condition, prescribe them medication, and send them on their way, Wolff said. It’s another when that person has a support network to assist them through the recovery process and in day-to-day life.

“That’s where I think the faith-based community can really help,” he said after the press conference.

A major part of the recent mental health conversation in Bexar County relates to inmates at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center. There have been four suicides there this year. Sheriff Susan Pamerleau, who has long been a mental health advocate, said that law enforcement efforts and jail procedures regarding mental health treatment are continuing to evolve.

“We’re not about minimum standards. We’re about making sure that we’re doing the right things to protect the people who are in our custody,” she told the Rivard Report in an interview earlier this month.

The Pathways to Hope conference, officials said, will be a way for the entire community to make sure that it’s protecting its loved ones with mental illnesses.

“There’s still so much misunderstanding of mental illness in our communities. It is an illness, it’s not a character disorder. It’s treatable,” Stoeltje said. “People can live full, meaningful, happy lives with a mental illness.

“We need to get it out of the closet and (talk) about it.”

Top image: An inmate at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center sits in the mental health unit.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is