Mental illness focus of Saturday fundraiser walk in Naples

Guenther Gosch broached the idea of employees at Moorings Park in Naples taking a walk one day in March. He was dumbfounded by the response.

That was seven years ago when the National Alliance of Mental Illness of Collier County was launching a walk fundraiser to raise awareness about the wide-ranging affects of mental illness in the community and to raise money to aid local families.

“It surprised me how many stepped forward,” Gosch said. “It has been an event we look forward to every year.”

Faithfully every spring when the NAMI Walk rolls around, a team of Moorings Park employees get T-shirts printed and challenge each other to raise money for the cause and has emerged as one of the nonprofit organizations staunchest supporters.

“We have 36 and counting but we expect to have a very good turnout,” Gosch said of how many employees from Moorings Park are on this year’s team. “Moorings Park as an organization facilitates their participation. We’ve been doing it a long time.”

Now in its seventh year, the annual NAMI Walk is Saturday with actor Joey “Ralphie” Pantoliano as the Grand Marshal. The evening before, he will be the featured guest at pre-walk cocktail party at The Club Pelican Bay from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tickets for the cocktail party are $125 per person.

Pantoliano has been in more than 100 movies and television programs, including Cosmo in “The Fugitive” and Guido in “Risky Business,” and Ralphie in “The Sopranos.”

“He has depression and will talk about his experiences,” said Kathryn Leib-Hunter executive director of Collier NAMI.

Registration for the walk begins at 7:30 a.m. in Cambier Park in downtown Naples and the three-mile walk begins at 8:45 a.m. through areas of Old Naples.

“We hope to raise close to $100,000,” Leib-Hunter said. “We raised last year $145,000.”

For Gosch, who has a family member with a mental illness, NAMI has been an important source of support and he believes the organization’s CIT program, or crisis intervention training, is vital for families living with mental illness.

“One of the most difficult things to deal with is his interaction with law enforcement and the tendency to not act appropriately,” Gosch said.

Since NAMI has been training law enforcement officers in how to handle someone with a mental illness in a crisis situation, the chances are greatly defused a confrontation will escalate out of control whereby the mentally ill individual winds up in jail, he said. That’s a huge relief for families.

The CIT program is a 40-hour week training for law enforcement officers to learn how to recognize mental illness when they respond to a scene and how to de-escalate a situation to keep from having to take a mentally ill individual to jail, Leib-Hunter said.

The local NAMI has been doing four training classes a year, with 30 officers each session, from the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Kevin Rambosk has asked NAMI to go up to six classes a year, she said.

“Rambosk’s goal is to train 100 percent of his officers,” she said. “In addition we are looking at some CIT training for youth relations officers.”

Each class costs $4,000 and the majority of the funding has been coming from the state, but the state budget for social services organizations are expecting huge cuts across the board this spring.

“We have all been advised by state officials to prepare our budgets with a 10-percent decrease,” she said.

What NAMI anticipates is losing $10,000 from the state’s contract of $102,000 for the Sarah Ann Drop-in Center, which serves as a gathering and support center for the mentally ill in East Naples, and a $16,000 cut from the $160,000 state contract for other outreach programs.

Last year, the NAMI chapter served 13,000 clients in the community and the expectation is the number will swell by 4,000 more individuals this year, she said.

The number of distress calls for help because of the recession has been dramatic; so have the number of callers with talk of suicide.

“Absolutely, I have had a very large number of people calling to say, ‘I just can’t go on,’ and usually we have success getting them into a doctor,” she said. “The calls have gone from very seldom to once a month.”

Callers needing help with rent, food and utilities has increased 40 percent this past year, where many say they have the choice to go to the grocery store or buy their medications but not both.

What could be rounding the bend as the recession continues brings more concern for Leib-Hunter and other mental health organizations in the state, in light of a new state report card from the national organization that looks at how states have been performing since the last report card in 2006.

Florida went from a “C” to a “D,” according to the assessment that looked at health promotion, financing treatment recovery, family empowerment and community integration.

“It’s abominable,” she said. “Every year agencies are seeing an increase in clients and the dollars going down while we are being asked to serve more and more.”

(For more information about the NAMI walk Saturday, call Leib-Hunter or Mindy Collier at 434-6726.)

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