Woman determined to defeat depression

MANY IN DENIAL ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS

Herald-Leader columnistOctober 4, 2009 

  • Mental Health Awareness Week activities

    Monday: Candlelight Vigil, Phoenix Park, downtown Lexington. 6 p.m.

    Tuesday: Free screenings for depression, W.T. Young Library, University of Kentucky Campus. 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

    Thursday: The Soloist and Consumer Art Show, Kentucky Theatre, 214 East Main Street. Free. 6 p.m.

    Saturday: 5K NAMI Walks for the Mind, Kentucky Horse Park. Registration at noon. (859) 272-7891. 1 p.m.

    Visit: www.namilex.org.

We often hear of organizations holding this event or that one, trying to raise awareness for a particular cause. Most of the time, many of us ignore the pleas.

In 2005, Yolanda Kelsor Clay had planned to do the same thing: ignore the efforts of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Lexington, to make Central Kentuckians aware of how prevalent mental illness is in our families and how much we don't want others to know that.

But a friend insisted she accompany her to a free showing of Out of the Shadow, a 67-minute documentary about recognizing and treating depression.

At that point in her life, Clay was a mess behind her smile. She had survived two failed marriages and was enduring severe back pain from a fall a decade before. She was a school teacher who couldn't teach, a single mother of two children, a real estate consultant, a cosmetic home-sales representative, an ordained minister and people pleaser.

She knew she suffered from depression, a condition diagnosed when she was 35 years old, but she also believed in the power of prayer. So when well-meaning Christian friends urged her to abandon her medication, she did. The spiraling began.

By 2004, her body had begun to show signs of physically breaking down because of her frenetic manic episodes, forcing her to bring her activities to a halt. That led to more depression, more self-doubt, more low self-esteem.

So when her friend, who had watched her become more and more reclusive, nagged her to attend the showing of the documentary during Mental Health Awareness Week four years ago, Clay went just to please a friend.

She saw herself, as well as members of her family, on the screen.

"I joined NAMI that day," Clay recalled. "I got their mailings, but I still was not emotionally able to go to the meetings."

Each month, those newsletters planted seeds of curiosity that sprouted in January 2006, when Clay attended her first meeting of a Family-to-Family Education Program class.

After the meeting, one of the volunteers asked Clay to review Shadow Voices: Finding Hope in Mental Illness, a Mennonite Ministries documentary challenging all of us to rethink the stigma of mental illness.

"I watched the video, and that turned my life completely around," Clay said.

Phill Gunning and his wife, Kelly, taught the Family-to-Family class that Clay attended. He said he watched as Clay seemed to awaken each week. After a month of crying and breaking down during discussions, Gunning said they knew, if Clay stayed to complete the 12-week class, she would be not only an asset to her family, but also to this community.

"She stuck with it," said Gunning, acting executive director of NAMI Lexington, "and after that, as I remember it, she just got more enthused as we went along, and we realized Yondi was going to be a part of the team."

And she did. Clay has been instrumental in NAMI Lexington's outreach to the African American, Hispanic and faith communities through the Multicultural Action Committee she coordinates and a faith-based initiative.

The frustrated teacher re-emerged, and Clay became certified in several leadership and training courses through the Kentucky Department of Mental Health. She is a trainer for suicide prevention counselors in this community and is involved with Signs of Suicide (SOS), which is a two-day intervention and screening program for secondary schools.

"I considered suicide after my grandmother died when I was 15," Clay said. She believes that was the beginning of her depression, and she wants to make sure young people know help is available.

And she wants the rest of us to know that, as well.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, the fourth anniversary of when Clay's healing began. It could be your beginning as well.

This year's events include a candlelight vigil, free screenings for depression, a 5K fund-raiser walk and, once again, a free movie at the Kentucky Theatre.

This year's feature is The Soloist, the story of a musically talented homeless man with schizophrenia and his relationship with a reporter. It stars Jamie Foxx.

Consider this a nudge from Clay to you to start your road to recovery.

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or mdavis1@herald-leader.com.

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