October 2008         
A Monthly Publication of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio
www.namiohio.org

Judge Williams’ first encounter with mental illness occurred during her freshman year in high school when a close friend took her own life.  This created an awareness of mental illness but it was not until later that she developed a better understanding of the disease.  “If we are honest with ourselves, every one of us has been personally touched by mental illness,” said Judge Williams.

Judge Williams began her legal career as prosecutor and then later practiced as a criminal defense attorney.  One of her first clients was a young woman who “lost it” when someone she did not know visited her in-laws home where she was living at the time.   Looking into her client’s background, then Atty. Williams learned that the woman had been the first to discover her father after he had hung himself.  The man who had visited her in-laws that day looked like her father and this triggered a psychotic episode.  Atty. Williams later discovered that her client had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had been off of her medication for several weeks. 

 

“I felt I had to go to bat for this woman.   I wanted to find an alternative that would help her.  I didn’t want to see her go to jail or receive a slap on the wrist and watch her go down the same path that brought her to this point,” Judge Williams said.  After some urging, the prosecutor agreed to probation so long as the woman agreed to comply with treatment.   She did, and eventually she was able to regain her life with her family.  “Thus began my commitment to try to help those who are in need and willing to accept some assistance,” Judge Williams reflected.

The purpose of Mental Health Court is to divert individuals diagnosed with a severe mental illness from jail and the criminal justice system.  In her role as the judge for this special docket court, Judge Williams sees the stigma brought on by one’s own view of medication and treatment.  She explained, “This is one of their biggest hurdles to overcome.  I tell the people who come into my courtroom that they must stop viewing mental illness as something to be ashamed of.   It is no different than any other chronic illness such as diabetes or heart disease.  It simply needs to be managed with medication and treatment.   By the end of their required two years of participation in Mental Health Court, I want them to feel good about themselves, to have good self-esteem and a better understanding of their illness.”  

Judge Williams sees that as participants accept their illness, they become their own ambassadors for reducing stigma in the community. “But,” she added, “it is equally important that clinicians, judges, mental health professionals and family members educate the public and the media about mental illness and continue to share the success stories we come across every day.”

“Our focus is to help people help themselves. That starts by all of us believing in each person’s ability to be successful,” said Judge Williams. “I am confident that one day these illnesses will be viewed, treated and funded equally with other illnesses. I believe that. I see successes in my courtroom every week. That is why I love what I do.”

On November 4th, voters from 15 counties throughout Ohio will be asked to support local mental health levies. If you live in one of these counties, NAMI Ohio strongly urges you to support these levies, and to encourage your family, friends and neighbors to do so as well. Local mental health levies fund approximately 30% of the critical treatment and support services that individuals with serious mental illness rely upon to get and stay well.

“While these are indeed trying times for many of us financially, imagine what it is like for those who are faced with the daily challenges that result from having a serious mental health disorder. Voter support for these services will help to ensure that our loved ones can continue to receive the help they need,” said Jim Mauro, Executive Director of NAMI Ohio. Levies are on the ballot in Lake, Greene, Seneca, Wood, Mahoning, Muskingum, Lucas, Washington, Four County (Defiance, Fulton, Henry and Williams) Stark, Portage and Noble counties.

Stigma Busting Challenge:  Consider donating a book about mental illness to the young adult section of your local library