HOUSTON – The holidays are more than just about the food and festivities, the season is also about giving back to those in need and supporting wonderful causes. So when invited to a fundraising party at a lavish Memorial area home promising good food, great networking and an evening of jazz, I jumped at the chance to do a little mixing and mingling in the name of the holiday spirit.
Upon entering the doors, I was first awestruck by the beauty of the home and even more awestruck by the "best-dressed" attendees decked out in tailored suits, evening gowns and cocktail dresses. They were all there for the "Smooth Jazz On My Mind" benefit dinner in support of Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (SARDAA), founded by Linda Stalters.
One man in particular caught my eye. He had on a black tuxedo with a lime green vest, a long gold earring dangling from his right ear and a broad smile. He had the festive "Mardi Gras" air of elegance with a dash of Christmas cheer and, instantly, I knew I wanted to make his acquaintance.
His name is Patrick McIlvain, and he told me something that took me slightly aback.
"I suffer from mental illness," he said, just as calmly as he pleased, and I tried not to let the shock of what he told me show on my face. McIlvain seemed a little festive, or eccentric in other terms, but looked just like any other Southerner at a holiday party.
Then I started to survey the rest of the room. "Who else in here has mental issues?" I thought to myself. I sat down, sipped on my glass of wine and was educated by McIlvain, and the stigma of what I initially had in my mind when he proudly made his declaration vanished as I was filled with knowledge.
SCHIZOPHRENIA -- is not a scary word, it is a disease that must not only be taken seriously, but understood. Both Stalters and McIlvain are on a mission to help the public become more educated.
McIlvain explained how people suffering from schizophrenia, or mental illness, have often been dismissed as just "strange family members."
"We say 'that's cousin May or Uncle Albert being the way cousin May or Uncle Albert is,' but there are reasons for that," he said.
Misunderstood people like "Cousin May" or "Uncle Albert" are part of the reasons SARDAA was founded.
"I founded SARDAA in 2008 because there isn't another group or organization that really focuses on schizophrenia-related disorders. There is a Schizophrenics Anonymous self-help peer support group, but it didn't have a parent organization to help administer it, so we helped build that throughout the world," Stalters said. "We just want to help people live with this disorder and we want people to know that it's a brain disorder, it's not something that they ask for. The brain is the most important organ of our body. Why do we not allow people to be treated?"
Stalters is a retired advanced practice nurse psychotherapist with wide-ranging experience as a clinical practitioner, educator, advocate, organizer and speaker. She is committed to driving improved patient care through education, patient advocacy and clinical practice.
"I started this organization so that we can tell everyone else what it [schizophrenia] is and what it isn't, and provide services for people who live with the disorder to realize they're not alone and that they can be empowered," Stalters said. "People who live with schizophrenia are just like anyone else and they have the same aspirations and desires as anyone. If they are untreated, that is what leads to horrible things for them and other people. But if they are treated, they can lead a normal life."
Stalters and McIlvain met five years ago. Together, they are on a mission to improve the lives of people living with mental illness and remove the shame for people associated with it.
"I am the founder of the Walk for Mental Health Awareness. We are a positive public dialogue to counter all the negative dialogue that is going out. We take place during World Mental Health Awareness Week, which is the first full week of October. We are a fundraising venue for nonprofits in the Greater Houston area that offer mental health services to their clients," McIlvain said. "Quite often, the very first budgets to get cut, whether it's in Austin or Washington, D. C., are social services. They are cut because my brothers and sisters do not understand that we can go and advocate on our behalf."
McIlvain described how it feels to suffer from the disorder.
"When we are having an episode, it is very lonely, it is very cold, the fog is very dense. We can not see even a foot in front of us when we are in this valley. We can't tell top from bottom, right from left," he said. "So I am here, the walk is here, to let folks know that not only are you supported with love, hugs and support but there are others who are traversing the same path that you are."
The "Jazz On My Mind" benefit dinner, concert and auction was enjoyed by many influential community members as well as guests from around the country. Entertainment included a soulful saxophone recital by Tom Braxton. Funds raised from the live auction benefited programs, education and resources for those with mental illnesses. Food was provided by Brian "Chef Butta" Stalters, the executive chef of convention at the Gaylord Texan in Dallas. He brought Asian-, South American- and American -influenced dishes for the evening. The evening was emceed by John Cruise, executive director of Injured Federal Workers Advocate Association and chairman at Small Business Today Magazine.
There was also a silent auction, helping to raise thousands for the organization. The money is needed to help support those in need.
"Remember, this is a brain disorder. People are people, and we are brothers and sisters. We're here on this Earth to help one another," Linda Stalters said.
Linda's husband, Russell Stalters, shares her passion.
"The interesting thing is, everybody knows somebody in their family, or friend, or a friend's family who is affected. You may not see them because they don't have it tattooed on their forehead, but it [mental illness] affects everybody in our community," Rusell Stalters said. "The brain is one of the most important organs in our body and sometimes people have diseases and we need to treat them the same way we treat people with diabetes and cancer. People used to be stigmatized for AIDS and we've embraced them, what about the people with schizophrenia? We need to help eliminate the stigma and support legislature and funding. They are our family and our friends, and they need our support."
One more thing, there was a reason behind McIlvain's dapper vest.
"For folks who don't know, lime green is the color for mental illness," he explained.
Such a wonderful color, such a wonderful cause.
SARDAA promotes improvement in the lives of people with schizophrenia-related illnesses and their families by providing support, hope and awareness so that early diagnosis, treatment and community services increase recovery.
SARDAA's mission is that every person with schizophrenia or a related disorder (mental illness involving psychosis) achieves recovery and a full life in a compassionate community free of stigma and discrimination.
About the Walk for Mental Health Awareness-Houston
The Walk for Mental Health Awareness- Houston is a nonprofit organization that hosts a three-day event during the national Mental Health Week. The Walk Houston works alongside other 501(c)(3) agencies that provide mental services to those in the Greater Houston area. These agencies make up our list of "Walk with a Purpose" organizations.
Some quick facts about schizophrenia:
- Schizophrenia can be found in approximately 1.1 percent of the world's population, regardless of racial, ethnic or economic background.
- Approximately 3.5 million people in the United States are diagnosed with schizophrenia and it is one of the leading causes of disability.
- Three-quarters of persons with schizophrenia develop the illness between 16 and 25 years of age.
- The disorder is at least partially genetic
- To be diagnosed as having schizophrenia, one must have associated symptoms for at least six months.
- Studies have indicated that 25 percent of those having schizophrenia recover completely, 50 percent are improved over a 10-year period, and 25 percent do not improve over time.
- Treatment and other economic costs due to schizophrenia are enormous, estimated between $32.5 and $65 billion annually.
- Between one-third and one-half of all homeless adults have schizophrenia.
- 50 percent of people diagnosed with schizophrenia have received no treatment.