Longtime Hilton Head Island residents Mary and Johnny Hiers didn't know what to think when their son, John, became very withdrawn in his teens.
Mary said she first noticed something wasn't right when the family was sitting at the dinner table and he started talking about something completely different. She said his thoughts were very disorganized.
After three hospitalizations and a year of searching for answers, John, who was 17 at the time, was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness website, the disorder is characterized by a combination of symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorder.
"(Schizoaffective disorder) is a very hard disease because it affects the mind, and therefore they can't think properly," Mary said. "And they can't reason in the bad stages of it."
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It was a difficult time for the Hiers family. Mary said she didn't feel like she could talk to anyone about John's illness because of the stigma attached to it. There was no Internet in the 1980s, so she couldn't chat anonymously with people online. And when she did open up and share the diagnosis with others, they were not very accepting.
"As I started speaking out, people said, 'I can't believe you're talking about it,'<2009>" Mary said. "And I said, 'I don't have anything to be ashamed of. He's got a brain disease.' And we really, really had to kind of fight the system for a while."
Then Mary heard about a support group for family members of people with mental illness. It was run by a local chapter of NAMI, and the meetings were held in Beaufort. She started going to the meetings and quickly realized there really were other people going through the same thing as her family. She was finally able to talk openly to others about mental illness, and compare notes on doctors and treatment options.
When Mary noticed that several people were driving all the way to Beaufort from Hilton Head for the meetings, she decided to start a group onisland. She founded the Hilton Head chapter of NAMI Beaufort County in 1990.
Mary and her family are still active with the local group and will be participating in the sixth annual NAMI Walks on Saturday at Coligny Beach on Hilton Head. The purpose of the walk is to raise awareness about mental illness and raise money for NAMI's programs in Beaufort County.
Mary wants to encourage others affected by mental illness to get involved in some of those programs.
"I think a lot of times the family members are in such pain that it's hard for them to function," she said. "(They need to) realize there are other people in this situation and to get out, go to the meetings, go to the support groups because that's what we didn't have at first -- (we) didn't have anybody to talk to."