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Kadedra Vaughan (left) and Jordan Carey want to create a safe and open space to talk about mental health. 

Milan Burton has struggled with mental illness for around 10 years. The senior health services administration major has battled obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression. At times, she’s felt like she’s had no one to talk to, making her struggles lonely and difficult. To her dismay, her younger sister deals with the same invisible illnesses.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” Burton said.

Her story, along with her sister’s, motivates her to be available to those who are suffering from the same thing. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, sheds light on why they believe it’s important to provide a strong community for people who struggle with mental health issues. NAMI was founded in Virginia and can be found on many campuses across the state, but this will be its first semester at JMU.

Senior social work major and NAMI President Kadedra Vaughan plans to establish an all-inclusive community for students to talk about mental health.

“Our goal for NAMI is to educate and be a family for the mental health community at JMU,” Vaughan said. “Specifically, we want to draw attention to minority communities.” 

NAMI’s aim is to end the mental illness stigma at JMU. Senior social work major Jordan Carey joined as the social media coordinator and anticipates providing a positive impact in an organization that strives to promote an open dialogue for all members.

“I’m African American, and there’s definitely a stigma in my community,” Carey said. “It wasn’t talked about when I was growing up.”

The group’s focus on minority populations highlights how race affects mental health. Carey expressed that being African American can come with unwanted experiences such as displacement, poverty or other traumatic experiences. 

“Race can affect mental health substantially. Being a minority, sometimes you don’t get the same opportunities as your white counterparts,” Carey said. “People can’t get the resources they need for help because it’s not available to them or their community.”

NAMI executive members share comparable experiences when it comes to race and their mental health. The group has goals to be a support system to people who may feel similarly to them. 

“We, as people of color, experience things differently than people who are not of color,” Vaughan said. “I think representation matters when it comes to your mental health.” 

Depending on one’s family background, mental health may be overlooked or even unrecognized. Older generations may have fallen short on talking about it, but new research shows Generation Z is more apt to generate a conversation on the issue.   

Vaughan said that a lot of families of people of color stigmatize mental illness. NAMI provides an outlet to cultivate a community for individuals who need support if they aren’t receiving it from their immediate families. 

“For a lot of families of people of color, mental illness is not only stigmatized but completely demonized,” Vaughan said. “We want students to be able to have that family even if their family isn’t being a family when it comes to their mental health.”

JMU provides resources for students with mental illnesses, like the counseling center or therapy dogs, but NAMI wants to bridge the gap in the community. It wants to help those who might not know where to turn.

“I’d like to see NAMI have open doors,” Burton, vice president, said, “I want to open everybody’s eyes to a lot of different things.” 

The organization uses a non-hierarchical approach to foster an environment where everyone is on the same playing field. It wants to be an interactive club with an emphasis on the members driving meetings and helping to be the power source in running the organization.

“We want to be a more fluid organization versus as an exec, general body, we have a program type of thing,” Vaughan said. “We want it to be more like a family — being able to talk to each other and get advice from each other and help people out.”

NAMI has plans to change the dialogue through tentative events such as its whiteboard campaign. Participants can write down a word or phrase relating to mental health so NAMI can get to know prospective members.  

Mental illness may be invisible, but NAMI anticipates being a resource for the JMU community by reaching toward openness, inclusivity and family-like bonds. 

“We are here to help people know it’s okay and you’re not alone,” Carey said. “Mental illness is only part of your story, and it’s only up; you can’t go down any further.” 

Contact Audrey Nakagawa at nakagaas@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter@Breeze_Culture.