A scene from the NAMI Walk in 2018
NAMI Walk 2018 | Courtesy of NAMI

This Saturday, June 8, is — by official proclamation — Mental Health Day in Louisville. The Louisville chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is celebrating the occasion with Step Forward for Mental Health, a fundraising walk (or run), complete with food trucks, live music, vendors and other attractions at Waterfront Park.

The walk caps an ambitious first for the organization: a full month of activities aimed at making Louisville a happier, mentally healthier city.

Insider spoke with Amanda Villaveces, a licensed marriage and family therapist who donates her time to NAMI Louisville and is one of the organizers behind the month’s activities.

Amanda Villaveces
Amanda Villaveces | Photo by Erin Yaeger Photography

Villaveces is an Arizona native who comes to Louisville via the Bay Area. In addition to volunteering with NAMI, she also runs Improv for Anxiety. It was at a planning meeting for that improv therapy that she tripped over a NAMI organizational meeting.

“It was all sort of happenstance,” she explained. “I was in a coffee shop, and I had overheard this table talking about NAMI and mental health, and my ears pricked up immediately.”

She introduced herself and was immediately drafted.

“They said, ‘Oh, come to our next meeting.’ The rest is history. I kind of got hooked there,” she said.

Though Step Forward may be the organization’s most visible activity, it works year-round, offering a huge —and still growing — array of services.

“The local chapter we have here, they host a bunch of different groups — they have support groups for families, they do a lot of peer support groups,” said Villaveces. “It’s a really great organization for anybody who is interested in getting into mental health and understanding mental health a little bit more.”

Additionally, NAMI works to provide low-cost services, since mental health often is not covered, or only barely covered, by insurance companies. The nonprofit also has a lot of programming to help fight addiction and support people in recovery.

“They do a lot of community outreach with other organizations like Bridgehaven, The Brook, any of the major inpatient organizations we have here, and they can help with the kind of continuation of services by joining some support groups and things like that,” Villaveces said.

Another very important — and free — program centers on suicide prevention techniques called “QPR.”

“QPR is ‘question, persuade and refer,’ and those are the three kinds of general steps when we’re teaching the general public what to do with suicide prevention,” she explains. “(Attendees) can learn some really great tools and techniques.”

The only problem with these programs is that often people are afraid to admit they need help, which is one of the biggest reason for the Step Forward walk.

“There definitely is a stigma attached to talking about mental health, and that is part of the reason why we thought this was really important — to connect and build that community and get the word out that this is not a bad thing, it’s not a scary thing,” said Villaveces.

The walk has been a regular feature of NAMI’s outreach to the community for several years, but this year a conversation sparked an ambitious new project, explained Villaveces: “I was speaking with Nancy Brooks, who is the executive director of NAMI here, and we were kind of just on our way out (of a meeting), and I said, ‘I kind of wish Louisville had a mental health day,’ And she said, ‘Me, too. Let’s do that.’ ”

What initially was supposed to be one day became a month. It’s fitting because May is Mental Health Awareness Month nationally.

This first year for a monthlong series of fortunate events had little to no funding, though NAMI was joined by Northstar Counseling and The Pete Foundation to help organize. In lieu of a big budget, Villaveces and Brooks reached out to the mental health community to see if anyone could lend time and resources to the cause.

Soon after, even more members of the community got involved.

“Mental health isn’t just sitting in a therapist’s office, mental health is going for a hike, and socialization, or learning something like photography or pottery,” added Villaveces.

A Squallis Puppeteers show
A Squallis Puppeteers show with Carmichael’s Kids and the Louisville Free Public Library | Courtesy

All told, there were more than two-dozen events, including Tai Chi, yoga, self-defense and puppet shows, all of which will culminate on Saturday, with Step Forward and the official Mental Health Day.

And how did Saturday become Mental Health Day?

“Ultimately, you just submit it online — which is just amazing,” said Villaveces, though she did admit she had a little help. “I mentioned it to a friend of mine who works in the Mayor’s Office. She said, ‘Oh, that’s simple, just get a proclamation.’ ”

Just like finding help with mental health, it boiled down to awareness of resources and finding them.

“In (my friend’s) world, that’s so basic and obvious, but if you’re not in her world, maybe less so. She helped guide us and put us in contact with the public health department, and they were great with helping us promote events and talking about the proclamation.”

In addition to attending Step Forward for Mental Health — which begins at 8:30 a.m. Louisville will ‘Step Forward’ for Mental Health Day on the Harbor Lawn of Waterfront Park — Saturday night is NAMI Night at Louisville City FC. While Saturday’s match against Loudon isn’t a huge game, fans can bring the real quality for NAMI by using the promo code NAMI19, so that a portion of their ticket price goes to the organization.

Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.