Standing in front of news cameras less than 24 hours after 31 people were murdered by acts of gun violence in El Paso and Dayton, President Donald Trump suggested that those vile acts were due, in large part, to mental illness. “Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun,” Trump stated on live television.
Mental illness continues to be stigmatized by many in politics and the media, leading to many misconceptions about the root causes of our nation’s epidemic of gun violence.
2019 marks the ninth year for the Houston Walk for Mental Health Awareness, and founder, Patrick McIlvain, a Vietnam-era veteran, is hoping to combat the recent negative statements in the press while also fostering an environment of safety, growth, and camaraderie.
“We are trying to get away from using the term ‘mental illness.’ I inherited some ‘neuropsychiatric illnesses’ from both of my parents—depression, PTSD, paranoia,” McIlvain states, wearing a lime-green shirt with shoulder-length hair tucked behind his ears. “Many people [with neuropsychiatric illnesses] feel invisible. People talk around us, like we don’t have a voice or a right to speak up. After 30 years of therapy, I rediscovered that we all have a birthright to speak up and be heard,” he emphasizes.
McIlvain uses his personal experiences with neuropsychiatric illness to inspire others to speak openly and freely, and to advocate for themselves. “We do not know how to strongly advocate as a community. Historically, [mental-health services] are the first to be cut. When someone speaks from their own personal experience [in front of the Texas Legislature],” McIlvain explains, “that energy is felt and it has a much better impact.”
The ongoing debate about mental health as it relates to gun violence is something McIlvain feels will be unofficially addressed at this year’s event. “I think it’s sad that the walk has to deviate from empowering to correcting, but I feel like I’m having to correct the false stigma that is there. It has only been intensified by what #45 is saying.”
Every time a politician makes a comment linking the all-encompassing term “mental health” to gun violence, there is an immediate ripple effect in the media. U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar has spoken out against the negative rhetoric: “I would also call on those who use ‘mental illness’ as an excuse [for gun violence] to please stop. Please stop.”
So much false information only adds fuel to the fire, McIlvain says. “Those who repeat that rhetoric are only validating that belief, intensifying that belief, and reinforcing the shame and guilt that someone who has a mental challenge feels.” It’s a dialogue McIlvain is willing to engage in, in order to be the role model he had always looked for as a child. “I’m feeling an added pressure, an added burden. [Beyond just doing] the fundraising, now there’s a need to make sure people know that just because you have a neuropsychiatric illness, it doesn’t mean you will be a mass-murderer.”
While the conversation about mental health can become tense, the Houston Walk for Mental Health Awareness is all about solidarity. “The walk is about fun, freedom, empowerment, camaraderie, and friendship. That’s what’s on participants’ minds,” McIlvain notes with a smile stretching from ear to ear. “We’ve been blessed from the very first walk, [where] we had over 300 participants. It has stayed pretty consistent. Maybe this is the year we can do 500, but I am pleased that we have been a success from the very first walk.”
He also touts success stories that happen organically every year. At the end of the walk, for instance, volunteers are on hand to distribute medals of accomplishment to each participant. Each year, McIlvain stands in awe as each walker receives their symbol of victory. “Many people with neuropsychiatric illnesses don’t like to be touched, so we instruct our volunteers to pick up on those signs. In the last eight years, we’ve never had one person refuse being draped with the medal. I think this really speaks to the power of the walk, and what we do.”
McIlvain lights up when asked about what the younger participants at the walk will experience. He has created a “Children’s Corner” interactive learning center for kids and their parents, and its tagline is “Developing healthy minds today for the future.”
“The Children’s Corner is for toddlers up to 15 year olds. We talk about body image, depression, and more. All of these things start in kindergarten or first grade—the judging and bullying. We talk about using kind words,” The Children’s Corner’ is for parents and kids.”
Another element of the walk is the “Nutrition Corner” with information about healthy diets. “We know a healthy diet is important for any kind of chronic illness,” he explains. “At the Nutrition Corner, restaurants donate food samples so people can see what a healthy meal looks and tastes like.” This has proven to be formative for McIlvain and his journey. “For me, with my social anxiety, after I get home [after a long day] I don’t have the energy to cook. These restaurants [provide me with easy meal ideas so that] I know where to go.”
There is indeed something for everyone at this event. With a grin on his face, McIlvain boasts, “We even have a ‘Pup Tent’ for dogs on a leash.”
The important message that organizers and volunteers at this year’s walk want everyone to know is that neuropsychiatric illness is not a struggle, but a journey. “Neuropsychiatric illness can seem like the most powerful thing on Earth. When it senses that we are trying to gain control of our thoughts, it really digs those stiletto heels in and intensifies—[often leading to] your biggest fears coming true.”
McIlvain looks forward to another year of fun and personal breakthroughs at the 2019 Walk for Mental Health Awareness. Sitting up in his seat, he is quick to add, “And we have wonderful door prizes!”
What: The Walk for Mental Health Awareness
Where: Stude Park, 1031 Stude St.
When: Registration at 7 am, Walk starts at 8 am, Mental Health Expo with door prizes is 9:30–11:00 am
This article appears in the September 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.