SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa

A Conversation With … Stephanie Appleby

Executive Director, NAMI Southwest Missouri Inc.

Posted online

You became the lead of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness on July 1 after six years with the nonprofit. What was your driving factor?
I grew up having family members that had mental illness, but I didn’t know that’s what it was. I just knew that they were ill. It really hit me in my 20s, my own mental illness. I became homebound for 14 years with agoraphobia, which is fear of open spaces. By that time, I had four family members who had completed suicide. The whole time I was homebound, I kept thinking, there’s got to be help for people like me. I couldn’t find any resources. Then I had a suicide attempt. That was kind of my lowest. From that point on, I decided I was not going to succumb to my illness.

What resources does NAMI provide?
We serve 21 counties and have 30 different support groups. All of our services are free. We’re funded by the Missouri Department of Mental Health, and we’re a United Way agency. Our operating costs are $256,000. We have our drop-in center. We have a small food pantry, because we know that a lot of individuals who have psychiatric issues need to eat before they can take their meds. We have a warm line where people can call; it’s a step down from a crisis line. We serve a lot of people from every spectrum of life, from homelessness all the way at the top six-figure folks.

The World Health Organization discovered a $1 trillion loss in productivity related to depression and anxiety worldwide. How can employers be part of the solution?
Breaking the stigma. Making your staff feel like it’s OK to discuss that. We’ve worked with Walmart on West Bypass and Sunshine here for a long time. They’ve made it feel like it’s a safe place to talk. If someone says I have a psychiatry appointment, you take that just as serious as you would if they have an oncology appointment. I even work in this field and sometimes I think I really need to go see my therapist. I’m struggling this week. And then you think, are people going to think I’m not a good leader? The stigma is still there.

Nationwide, agencies report one in four people have a mental illness, and one in 17 have a serious mental illness. What are you seeing locally?
Depression, anxiety and bipolar. When I came on to NAMI, I started researching the suicides in our community and found that in Missouri, we lose more people to suicide than we do car accidents and the flu. But yet we’re not talking about it. I started working with the medical examiner’s office. In Greene County in one year, we had 53 suicides in our own backyard. You go through those numbers, and I make myself do it every single month because I want to know who this is impacting. Work can become so monotonous, and you think I’m just earning a paycheck. That’s not why I’m here. I’m here because I want to fix this. Access to care is so bad. And then you’re over here at the morgue and sometimes this is where it ends up. And that to me is my driving force because it never had to get there. We have to do a better job as a community.

Is that conversation happening?
I just had a (meeting) with the [Springfield-Greene County] Health Department. I felt like it was very promising. Jordan Valley, Burrell, Mercy and Cox and us all came together to identify kind of the red flag issues in our community. I do feel like we are working on it. I’m hoping it gets better. This is the first time I’ve seen a collective plan with everyone on the same page.