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Dubuque woman forms group to end brain health stigma
Oct 21

Telegraph Herald

DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) _ For more than three decades, Dubuque resident Debi Butler has observed what can happen when a brain becomes sick.

Debi's younger brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1986. He has undergone multiple treatments and been in and out of institutions ever since.

In addition to battling schizophrenia, Debi's brother has been forced to contend with the stigma that came along with it. The way people treated him prompted him to become increasingly reclusive and isolated.

``The thing we noticed was that the stigma was as detrimental to his lifestyle as the disease itself,'' Butler told the Telegraph Herald .

Today, she is on a mission to eliminate the stigma that so deeply impacted her brother.

Butler founded Brain Health Now earlier this year. The nonprofit organization seeks to alter the perception surrounding brain health by addressing the terminology used to discuss it.

During October _ which is Brain Health Awareness Month _ these efforts are shifting into a new gear.

The organization's message is spelled out on billboards lining roadways in Bellevue, Dubuque, Dyersville and Maquoketa in Iowa, as well as East Dubuque, Ill.

Signs urge passersby to ``end the stigma now'' and explain that ``it's brain health, not mental illness,'' with red lines crossing out the final two words. The campaign also asks people to ditch terms such as ``psycho,'' ``crazy'' and ``nuts.''

Butler noted that one in five adults experience brain health issues. Nearly 60% of those adults didn't receive mental health services in the previous year.

Butler hopes the campaign compels residents to view brain health in a new light.

``The brain is an organ,'' she said. ``It weighs 3 pounds. It can get sick just like your kidneys, your heart or your liver.''

Inspired by her sibling's struggles, Butler has long been on a mission to help those with brain health issues.

Three years ago, she co-chaired the Starry Night Benefit at Mount Carmel in Dubuque. Patrick Kennedy provided the keynote address and discussed his own family's brain health issues before a crowd of nearly 400 people.

The outpouring of support compelled Debi and her husband, Andy, to further examine how they could make a difference locally.

Last year, Andy and Debi Butler self-funded a billboard campaign similar to this year's effort. The positive reaction to those efforts influenced them to start a nonprofit, launch another billboard campaign in 2019 and extend their efforts into local schools.

Beginning Oct. 24, members of Brain Health Now will appear in more than a half-dozen local middle and high schools during parent-teacher conferences. They will distribute educational materials and promotional items to students and parents alike in hopes of raising awareness.

``If we can help parents understand this is a brain health issue, no different than another physical issue of your body, maybe kids can get help early on and it won't have such an impact later on in life,'' Debi said.

Brain Health Now also has received support at multiple levels of government.

The City of Dubuque recently issued a proclamation declaring October ``Brain Health Awareness Month.'' Debi Butler and other committee members will travel to Des Moines later this month to accompany Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds as she signs a similar proclamation.

The group also has met with U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in hopes of furthering the message.

Andy Butler hopes such efforts will fundamentally alter the way in which people discuss these important issues.

``I hope we can get to the point where there is no more stigma, where people talk about `brain health' and `brain disease,' and `mental illness' is erased from our vocabulary,'' he said.

Debi Butler takes comfort in the fact that she is not going about her mission alone.

Nancy and Marty McNamer are among the 10 members that comprise the Brain Health Committee.

The McNamers lost their son, Joey, when he took his own life in August 2018.

Nancy recalls her son as a funny and witty young man who had ``hundreds of friends.'' He was 32.

``When that happened, our world dropped out from underneath us,'' said Nancy. ``It's something you cannot see from the outside. We could not see that he was suffering silently.''

The McNamers recall that their son sought help prior to his death but did so outside the Dubuque area. Due to the stigma attached to brain health concerns, he did not want to be seen in a doctor's office or make it known that he was struggling.

The McNamers hope Brain Health Now can help eradicate that stigma. Nancy recalls seeing one of the billboards as she was preparing to cross the Mississippi River into Dubuque.

``I saw it out of the corner of my eye,'' she said. ``At first, I kind of choked up. Then I thought, `This is great. This is what people need to see.'''

Marty McNamer hopes the multi-faceted efforts of Brain Health Now will prevent others from going through the pain that his family has experienced.

``Our motivation (to participate in the organization) was the death of our son,'' he said. ``We don't want anybody else to have that type of motivation.''


Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com

By The Associated Press, Copyright 2019

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