The Step Forward for Mental Health Walk in Waterfront Park helps NAMI Louisville offer free mental health programs in the city. | Courtesy of NAMI Louisville

Because of the stigma that is still attached to mental illness, most people tend to shy away from discussing it outside of high-profile events like shootings or celebrity suicides.

However, the National Alliance on Mental Illness is on a mission is to provide mental health education and support to individuals in need of it before they find themselves in a crisis, said Nancy Brooks, executive director of NAMI Louisville.

“The secret to our success is that most of our teachers and group leaders have experience with mental illness themselves. The people in our programs are being taught by peers, and they are around peers in class, so there is no judgment,” Brooks added.

Lebowski Fest founder Will Russell said he took advantage of NAMI’s resources after he experienced a well-publicized mental health episode in 2015, which damaged his business and strained many of his personal relationships. Russell said it was helpful to interact with people who were going through the same issues he was or were close to people who had gone through them.

“Mental illness is a legitimate medical condition. It is difficult to manage and difficult for the people around you to deal with. It really affects the whole family. My father was the real hero in my story,” Russell explained. “He had to deal with my finances and having me hospitalized. I still have periods that are trying to the people around me.”

Lebowski Fest founder Will Russell received help through NAMI Louisville after a manic episode disrupted his life in 2015. | Courtesy of Will Russell

After he began to mend from his manic episode and the depression that followed it, Russell spent time as a volunteer in NAMI’s office.

To raise money to provide services to Russell and many others with mental illness in the Louisville, NAMI Louisville hosts the annual Step Forward for Mental Health Walk. The walk starts at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 11, in Waterfront Park.

Brooks said Step Forward, now in its eighth year, accounts for more than half NAMI Louisville’s $175,000 annual budget.

Step Forward participants raise money by registering online or at the event and collecting money from sponsors. There are long and short routes, and people can register for the event as individuals or as part of a team. Those who cannot make it to the walk can also make a donation on the organization’s website.

NAMI Louisville has already reached 60 percent of its $100,000 goal for this year, Brooks said. The money allows NAMI to offer programs like Family-to-Family, a free 12-week class for the friends and relatives of individuals diagnosed with a mental illness that is offered several times a year in different parts of the city.

Participants in Step Forward for Mental Health Walk hold up signs for their cause in Waterfront Park. | Courtesy of NAMI Louisville

A Family-to-Family class is being offered through August 28 at the St. John United Methodist Church, 12700 U.S. 42 in Prospect. The class, which meets every Tuesday night, will move to west Louisville at the Bridges of Hope Neighborhood Place, 1411 Algonquin Parkway, in early November.

Because of his high profile in the community, Russell often finds himself being interviewed by the media about mental health issues. This led him to create his own mental health advocacy group called the Everything Will Be OK Project, which he says will complement NAMI Louisville.

“NAMI can be really serious. I want to normalize the topic of mental health and inject a little humor into it. We want to have fundraisers like a Dire Straits tribute concert,” he said.

The Everything Will Be OK Project will have a tent at the Step Forward for Mental Health Walk this weekend. There will other tents offering snacks, drinks and cold treats for those who might be hesitant about walking in the summer heat.

Michael L. Jones

Michael L. Jones

    Michael L. Jones, a freelance journalist and author, covers communities for Insider Louisville. His latest book "Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee" (History Press) received the 2014 Samuel Thomas Book Award from the Louisville Historical League. In addition to his contributions to Insider, his writing appears regularly in LEO Weekly, Louisville Magazine, Food & Dining – Louisville Edition, and Who’s Who Louisville: African American Profiles. He also sits on the board of directors of the National Jug Band Jubilee. Jones and his wife, Melissa Amos-Jones, a physical therapist, live in the Kenwood Hills neighborhood near Iroquois Park.