Photo Caption: Dr. Cate Matisi, left, and Clare Fesmire lead the 12th annual Walk the Walk down Court Street Saturday.
A large, excited group congregated on the corner of the Athens County Courthouse early Saturday morning to help raise awareness for mental health.
Community figures including Mayor Paul Wiehl and representatives of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Athens chapter spoke words of encouragement to the walkers before the annual Walk the Walk for Mental Health began. Walkers started south down Court Street and walked holding signs to Ohio University's Ridges Property south of the Hocking River.
Pete Wuscher, an Athens resident who helped start the walk in 2000, talked about the importance of community awareness for mental illness. The annual event started as a group of friends walking on the bike path from Nelsonville to Athens.
" I remember there were times in my life that I couldn't go outside because of the stigma attached to mental illness," Wuscher said. "The walk isn't for us; it's for those who are locked up in the correctional facilities and hospitals. Many who are inside these institutions don't feel anyone knows they are in there."
The line of sign-holding walkers stretched down Richland Avenue as cars drove past. Once they arrived at the Ridges, the walkers stopped to take in the colorful fall atmosphere and the historic Ridges buildings and cemeteries. Some participants said they were walking in support of family members suffering from a mental illness.
Anita Grant, an Alden psychology librarian, said this was her first time participating in the Walk the Walk.
"I have a family member with a metal illness so I am doing it for her. It was a goal of mine to become more aware through meeting and talking with other people," said Grant.
Walk the Walk for Mental Health Awareness has grown to become more than just a fundraiser for the local Gathering Place facility and NAMI. It has turned into a place where people who know someone with a mental illness can enjoy a support system. After the walk is over, participants can turn to the Gathering Place and NAMI for additional support.
Retired OU professor Tom Walker, a former board member of NAMI, has a son who had a mental disorder and now is fully recovered. The organization helped Walker's son and his family.
"It was hell for 12 years," Walker said. "NAMI gave us an emotional release, and it helped us find new ways of communicating with my son and knowing more about the illness."
Walker said stereotypes and stigmas are still associated with mental illness in society. One in five people suffer from a serious mental illness, and there's a stigma attached to it, he added. Whether it's a family member, neighbor or friend, every family is impacted by mental illness, he said.
Once the walk was over, walkers could warm up and take a break. There was a free lunch provided by local restaurants and a silent auction to help raise additional funds for the Gathering Place and NAMI.