Greg Fitch is starting a nonprofit that strives to give people experiencing mental illness “a voice in change.”
The 46-year-old Juneau resident wants to help mental health patients organize, let others know about their challenges and break the stigma surrounding them. Then, he wants to lobby, advocate for change and make accessing the mental health care system easier.
“How can the system know how to provide for us if they don’t know what we go through on a daily basis?” Fitch wondered.
Fitch knows firsthand about the challenges and stigma surrounding mental illness.
“My mental illness is bipolar. I’ve been diagnosed with some other things, like PTSD. I’m a recovering addict and alcoholic. Alcoholism and drug use is very prevalent within the mental health community. We self-medicate because sometimes we can’t get the proper medications,” he said in an interview earlier this month at his Juneau home.
Fitch always suspected he had mental health issues. He said his mother was schizophrenic and mental illness runs in his family.
He described being bipolar as having bouts of mania, or hyperactivity, followed quickly by extreme lows.
“Mania is like having a heightened sense of you can save the world. You’ll be running around trying to accomplish things, but you’re actually accomplishing nothing because you’re sick, and you don’t realize it,” Fitch said. “And you have mood swings, which is called cycling. I’m what you call a rapid cycler. I can cycle from a state of mania to a state of depression in minutes.”
Before he was diagnosed with bipolar and taking proper medications, Fitch had a nervous breakdown in 2004 and tried to kill himself.
“It’s a terrible experience. Mental illness is a very dilapidating disease and so many people go through it, but they’re afraid to come out and say so,” he said.
Since then, Fitch has found good medical care and is doing much better — enough to start an oraganization called Mental Health Consumer Action Network, or MCAN. He said the group is applying to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and is in the process of forming a board.
Juneau resident Levi LeCount has volunteered to be on that board. LeCount met Fitch at Polaris House, and he instantly related to the need to break down stigma.
“I’m disabled physically and mentally. I’m in a wheelchair. I have cerebral palsy, so I’ve dealt with stigma a lot of my life, as well,” LeCount said in a phone interview Friday.
He’s also bipolar and has other mental illness diagnosis. He wants MCAN to help get people with mental illnesses organized “so we’re a little more respected by the outside community.”
LeCount said organizations meant to help people experienceing mental illness “don’t always do the best job and it’s hard for a mental health consumer sometimes to articulate that for themselves.” That’s where he envisions MCAN helping out — to be that voice.
“It’s really hard to just get through your day when people don’t understand what’s going on in your head, when you can’t explain how you’re feeling or why you react to a certain situation the way you do,” LeCount said.
Fitch said the first goal of MCAN is to break the stigma surrounding people with mental illness. He was recently on a Capital Transit bus and saw a man having a really hard time.
“He was talking to himself. He was having a problem navigating the system and trying to get help,” Fitch said.
Instead of helping the man, Fitch saw people standing up and moving away from him.
“People didn’t want to be around him. People were scared of him. People need to be a little more understanding of what mental health is about. We’re not out to hurt you. We’re not out to do anything to you. Sometimes we have problems and we struggle with it, and people need to be understanding,” said Fitch, who talked to the man and calmed him down.
Fitch said MCAN plans to hold anti-stigma drives.
“We’re going to do T-shirts with some amazing slogans. Instead of ‘Got Milk?’ the shirt will say, ‘Got psychosis?’” he said.
Once MCAN has built a board and a robust membership, Fitch said he will identify what issues to start advocating for.
Some things he would like to see is better access to the healthcare system, more people on Medicaid and an expansion of services for people with mental illnesses. He thinks the hospital should have a unit devoted to crisis stabilization, a place where people can be watched for a few days.
Getting a nonprofit off the ground isn’t easy. Fitch said he’s been teaching himself tax law and nonprofit law.
“It’s a struggle on a daily basis, but it drives me harder to do something,” he said. “I have something to contribute.”
Fitch hopes he and MCAN can fire up the community of people experiencing mental illness and make a difference in their lives.
“We’re part of society, we’re intelligent people and we’re everywhere,” he said.
• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.