THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sharon Dunas: Warrior And Angel For The Mentally Ill

If the stigma attached to mental illness is going to end any time soon, it will be because of people like Sharon Dunas, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for the Westside of Los Angeles. Dunas, who is a marriage & family therapist with a private practice, devotes most of her time to overseeing NAMI and advocating on behalf of the mentally ill.

When she became president of NAMI Westside in 2003, the organization had no office, no full-time employees and funds of roughly $2,000. Since then, she has raised enough money to set up a headquarters in West L.A., hired three salaried, full-time employees as well as a host of volunteers, and now counts deposits of more than $100,000 in the bank.

An attractive woman of indeterminate age, Dunas comes to the job with the scars of the suicides of both of her parents. She wears that strain on her face, just as the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously wore the strain of every soldier's death on his own visage.

Yet, like Rabin, an Israeli war hero, Dunas has a rare combination of strength, intelligence and compassion that has enabled her to keep her head, even when, as Rudyard Kipling once wrote, "all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you."

At the age of 22, Dunas was named conservator for the affairs of her father, a physician who battled substance abuse and alcoholism. She checked him into a rehab facility in Compton, where his roommate was the late actor, Dana Andrews.

As her father was a doctor, he wrote himself a prescription for phenobarbital and asked Dunas to pick up the medication for him. She gave it to him, and one night he intentionally overdosed.

Five years later, her mother, mired in a deep depression, also overdosed.

When Dunas' daughter, Nicole, had a major-depressive episode as a college student, Dunas says that there was "no hope for families at all." Back then, in the early-to-mid 1990s, families received next to no support from mental-health groups.

Under Dunas' leadership, that is no longer the case as NAMI, which has offices nationwide, now offers family-to-family programs, in which those experiencing the mental illness of a loved one can be counseled by others, who have endured a similar trauma. She says with a great deal of pride that her Westside affiliate alone has graduated nearly 800 people from the program since 1996, when Dunas first joined NAMI.

Likewise, in the peer-to-peer program, recovering schizophrenics and manic-depressives provide guidance to those in the process of overcoming their disorder.

On Oct. 3, L.A. County NAMI held its sixth annual walk.

For the three-mile trek, which attracted more than 2,000 participants, Dunas wore a straw hat woven by a Native American tribe and a bright orange T-shirt that read, "West L.A.: Family to Family" on the front and "NAMI Walks: For the Mind of America," on the back. She also toted a two-sided placard bearing the mottos, "There is no health without mental health," and "I love someone with a mental illness."

Feisty and spirited, she told me that I picked up the wrong T-shirt, when I bought a pastel blue one from another NAMI team. "You're walking with us," she said and got me an extra-large orange jersey.

Her feistiness extends to semantics. A guardian of the language surrounding mental illness, she referred, as she always does, to mental illness as a "brain illness," and said that schizophrenia "invaded the brain" of someone, just as cancer or an infection might.

Regarding the cliche that the mentally ill are violent, Dunas said that the best predictor of violence is "past violence," not mental illness.

As we walked through the streets of Santa Monica, Dunas cited suicide statistics. She mentioned that it is the third leading cause of death between the ages of 14 and 25 (numbers consistent with those listed on the Web site of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). According to Dunas, these suicides account for the loss of more youth in this country than the number of deaths from heart disease, AIDS, cancer, pneumonia, influenza, strokes, birth defects and lung diseases combined.

While people with AIDS receive free hospice care and free meds, Dunas said, "Ever hear of someone with mental illness getting free meds and care?"

She recently began working with Susan Schofield, whose daughter Jani, a 7-year-old diagnosed with schizophrenia, was the subject of a feature story several months ago in the L.A. Times. Dunas is trying to find a facility for Jani, whose family has had trouble with finances and government bureaucracy.

The Schofields' situation sheds light on a central policy problem confronting our nation: how to provide for the mentally ill, who by some estimates constitute one in four people in this country, although the proportion with severe mental illness is closer to 6 %. Mental-health parity laws go only so far, when one considers that many of the mentally ill can't afford health insurance.

Given these circumstances, Dunas charges nothing for the programs at NAMI. She can afford to do that based on donations as well as funds generated from activities such as the walk. Dunas' affiliate, the largest of ten offices in L.A. County, raised roughly $45,000 from sponsors for the Oct. 3 event, about 15% of the $300,000 raised as a whole, she said.

As for Dunas' ethos in dealing with the mentally ill and their families, she stresses a "no blame and no shame" approach, arguing that mental illness is "multifactorial." She knows all too well that families often feel shame when a member is mentally ill and blame themselves when there is no one reason why a person develops a disorder of the mind. Just as there is no one reason why a person recovers.

But recovery, she emphasizes, is more than possible, particularly if you have an "educated, supportive family."

Near the end of the NAMI walk, Dunas told me that her daughter is doing much better now. Nicole, who spent roughly two years convalescing due to severe depression that led to anorexia, graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from college and is now a yoga master and short story writer.

It has taken me years, but I too have been able to subdue my mental illness. At the time of my first psychotic break, in 1997, I doubted if I could ever work again. I thought I would have to be taken care of for the rest of my life.

After recuperating for two and one-half months in New Haven, Conn., I came back to L.A. Within a month, I got a job as a proofreader at L.A. Weekly. Within two months, I started dating Barbara Tracy, who is now my wife. Barbara and journalism have been the twin pillars of my life for more than a dozen years now.

As Dunas and I returned to the 3rd Street Promenade, I told her that Barbara is my angel.

"You deserve an angel," said Dunas, a warrior and an angel herself.