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NAMI Arkansas executive director says walk raises awareness, funding


CONWAY — Kim Arnold of Conway is used to people asking whether there is mental illness in her family. When people find out she’s the executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the National Association of Mental Illness, that’s one of their questions.
“What I say is, not today or not in my past, am I a person who lives with mental illness, but that could change today,’” she said. One in four people either has a mental illness or is affected by mental illness, Arnold said.Two things influenced her to go into the mental-health field 25 years ago. “I had a high school psychology course and was absolutely fascinated by it — what the brain could do,” the South Carolina native said.
The mother in a family who moved next door to Arnold when she was growing up gave her a firsthand look at mental illness. “She was schizophrenic, but we had no idea until she had an episode,” Arnold said.
Arnold’s mother became the woman’s caregiver because the woman’s husband couldn’t deal with his wife’s illness. Arnold said the woman and her mother maintained a friendship even after the woman divorced and moved. Arnold, 50, said she and her husband, Clay, lived in Arizona while he was in graduate school, but her first “real job” was when they moved to Texas in 1987. She worked for an inpatient, for-profit psychiatric hospital.
“It was very enlightening,” Arnold said. “I really enjoyed it; I loved working with the kids — I was in the education part of that, and we sat in on treatment teams — but what I realized that I enjoyed more, or what motivated me more, was being part of the committees that would do things to make the hospital better. What drove me was systems change.” The Arnolds moved to Kansas a couple of years later, where she worked for a community mental-health center for 16 years.  “In community mental health, there just weren’t a lot of resources, but it allowed us to work together as teams and bring things together to make a better program,” she said. “It was on a grant and losing money still when I came on; after I left 16 years later, it was over a $2 million department.” When asked how she accomplished that, Arnold laughed.

“A lot of hard work, and like we do now at NAMI Arkansas — pennies and nickels and dimes leave our office limping and bending over because we squeeze them so hard,” she said. Arnold, who took the NAMI Arkansas position in 2005 when she and her husband moved to Conway, is passionate about not only helping people through the organization’s programs and support groups, but educating people to help remove the stigma associated with mental illness. “The history is, it’s treated as a mysterious illness,” and there are many misconceptions about it, she said. “That’s why a lot of people don’t seek treatment.” Arnold said one thing she’s learned in 25 years in the mental-health field is, “It can happen to anybody, and it’s treatable.”