Amental health day walkathon was the place for me on Saturday. Billed as a "post-election stress buster" by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the stroll through downtown Washington helped me see beyond America's red states of mind and find solace in a clear, azure blue sky.
One step brought in the cool, crisp air; another let out the hot.
No matter what ailed you, however, the walk seemed to make everyone feel better. When asked what caused stress in her life, Ressa Long of Washington said: "Personal stuff. Marriage and dealing with my kids and work, you know, just being a wife and mother at home."
But she was beaming after her 5K walk. "I feel good, so excited," she said. "This just gave me some time to stretch out."
About 500 people participated in the walkathon, which helped mark the organization's 25th anniversary as an advocate for the mentally ill and raise money for research and education efforts. Michael Fitzpatrick, the group's executive director, was ecstatic.
"I feel terrific," he said after the 3.1-mile workout. "It's a great morning, beautiful weather, good turnout. It's uplifting, tremendous to make new friends this way."
Of course, running an organization with a quarter of a million members trying to keep hope alive among the nation's growing mentally ill population carries its own kind of stress.
"We have ambitious plans for taking on a mental health system that is fractured and inaccessible to millions who need help most," Fitzpatrick said. "Eighty percent of the people with serious mental illness cannot get service."
Sean and April Suhar were married recently. When it comes to stress, need I say more? "We planned a wedding outside D.C., so I had to fly back and forth on weekends and keep a full-time job," said April, who is the alliance's national program manager.
Their honeymoon in Aruba relieved much of the stress, no doubt. But the honeymoon is over now. Sean is back to work as a lawyer. As for April, the shock of war, fear of terrorism and stress of job insecurity are expected to exacerbate the problems of the mentally ill and make her workload even heavier.
One alliance program involves a coordinated effort with the Army to prepare kits for families of soldiers returning from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder. The kits are supposed to show them how to get help. But the question remains: Can a mental health delivery system in such disarray do more than add to the stress?
A mental health commission appointed by President Bush issued a report that identified three major obstacles that the mentally ill face in obtaining quality care: stigma that surrounds mental illness; unfair treatment limitations and financial requirements placed on mental health benefits by health insurance companies; and the nation's fragmented mental health service delivery system.
The consequences of all this, according to the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, include "unnecessary and costly disability, homelessness, school failure and incarceration."
Said alliance spokesman Bob Carrolla, a lawyer with bipolar disorder: "If you look at children under 19, 20 percent will have some kind of mental illness. But 80 percent of them have no access to any kind of screening or treatment."
Some studies have found that most inmates suffer from mental illnesses that could have been diagnosed and treated years before they started getting into trouble. A study by the alliance found that mental illness among college students is "prolific," with one in three students having prolonged periods of depression and one in four reporting suicidal thoughts or feelings. Fear and lack of education prevent most of them from doing anything about it, it said.
Maria Gomes, a doctoral student at the Howard University School of Social Work, and Patricia McDougall, assistant to the dean of the school, were still somewhat worried even after the walk.
"Now that the president is looking to change Social Security, a lot of us are starting to feel stress," Gomes said. "What social policies does he have in mind? Is he planning more cutbacks in social services?"
More stress-busting will be required. Gomes, an international student from Trinidad, said she was going home for Carnival next year. Come to think of it, I hear the sky is pretty blue over there, too.