By: Ajalee Pulley and Debra Patterson
HOUSTON — SARDDA (Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America) held its annual conference and gala on Oct. 10 in recognition of World Mental Health Day. Brain Disorders: Global Perspectives was held at the J.W. Marriott in Houston’s Galleria area.
The daylong event, aimed at raising awareness for those living with various psychiatric illnesses, consisted of a morning conference and luncheon, followed by an evening gala filled with award presentations, live auctions, dinner and jazz.
The morning and evening sessions were emceed by Nakia Cooper, of NewsWithAttitide.com and KPRC/ Click2Houston.com, and Guy Michaels of KPVU 91.3 FM Guy Michaels Morning Show. Media personality Jose Grinan presented the evening awards.
Schizophrenia is a world that most don’t understand, and seven to nine million Americans live with schizophrenia and bipolar brain disorders.
SARDAA’s vision is that every person living with a schizophrenia-related brain disorder (mental illness involving psychosis) achieves recovery and a full life in a compassionate community free of discrimination.
The executive director of SARDAA, Linda Stalters, works diligently to raise awareness and provide resources for those affected by brain disorders. She and her husband, Russell Stalters, remind others that schizophrenia is an illness, and should not be stigmatized. Others should not deem it as a scary thing, it should be treated.
That sentiment was echoed repeatedly by an esteemed bevvy of experts, who educated attendees on the illness, spoke of removing the shame attached to it, and encouraged people who feel that there is “something wrong” with them or someone they love to seek help.
The experts addressed challenges faced daily by individuals, families, professionals, the criminal justice system and policy makers dealing with psychiatric issues.
People suffering from schizophrenia and schizophrenia-related disorders walk among us daily, and it is not easy to detect a person suffering from the illness.
Molly Biffle is a University of Houston student seeking a degree in communication sciences and disorder. She is an accomplished young woman who is vigilant in the fight against the stigma attached to mental illness. It is personal to her.
Biffle was active in theatrical and musical productions in school, and graduated high school as the class valedictorian. A little over a year ago, she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. It was something that she struggled with as a child, but undiagnosed, she went without much-needed treatment for years.
Biffle says coping with her disorder has had its challenges, but she has managed to find a way.
“Music was incredibly helpful. I found something that I was passionate about in music and performing. I would always go for community theater events and I would find things to give myself something to live for,” she said. “That’s really the only way I coped. I was very bad at coping when I was very young. I just thought everyone went through what I went through and were just better at handling it. That’s why I went undiagnosed for so long.”
Biffle says she has to rely on her support system; her mother, her father and her psychiatrist, and urges others to be vocal about what they’re going through.
“Don’t be squeamish about telling people, that’s the main problem. People don’t tell and nobody looks for it. They just don’t know,” she said. “Talking is absolutely paramount. You need to talk to anyone, even if it is your best friend. You need to figure out a way to focus in on your problem and start solving it.”
Biffle shares her story in her blog, “My Journal of Psychotic Illness,” where speaks about her good days, bad days and methods of treatment.
During the conference, Molly spoke to attendees and delivered the “Message of Hope,” ending with a standing ovation.
Members of the University of Houston Delta Omega Chi Medical Service Society volunteered at the conference.
Kelsey Smith, volunteer director of the organization, has a psychology class Biffle and says she had no idea her classmate was affected by the disorder.
“You will never know what people’s battles are, or what they’ve been through in the past,” Smith said. “Being here today has opened me up to a new world that I was unfamiliar to. Molly was very inspirational.”
Other conference speakers were Dr. Alex Kopelowicz, Brian Donahue, Zach Edgerton, Gwen Viviani, Dr. Mark Komrad, Shari Strong and Doris Fuller.
Ismael Cala, radio and TV anchor, and host of Cala on CC en Espanol, delivered the keynote address. Cala revealed that schizophrenia has affected several members of his family, including his father and brother, and how he monitors his own health.
The evening ended with a night of jazz, featuring a live concert by jazz artists Tom Braxton, Larry Braggs and Vel Lewis.
“Jazz On My Mind,” was themed because the innovator of contemporary jazz, Buddy Bolden, lived with and died due to schizophrenia.
The proceeds from the event will be to promote education, support and resources for people affected by schizophrenia – related brain disorders.