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At 87, mental-health advocate Ingrid Silvian still offers hope

May 30, 2107 | By Rita Price

After so many years and so much heartache, no one could blame 87-year-old Ingrid Silvian for stepping away from the fight.

“But how do you do that?” she asked. “How do you quit being a mom? You can’t.”

Silvian pushes forward, her dedication to advocacy for the mentally ill and their families as certain as her own anguish. Her daughter’s first psychiatric hospitalization took place in 1982; the latest began just weeks ago. There have been more than 40 in between.

“It’s a cruel disease,” Silvian said, and no one should have to confront it alone.

That’s why, more than 30 years ago, she helped found the National Alliance on Mental Illness Franklin County, why she used to hole up in a one-room office and pound out newsletters for overwhelmed families, and it’s why she’ll again be front and center at the NAMI Walk on June 10 at Wolfe Park.

“Even with all the pressure she’s had in her life, she’s always there for others,” said Terry Russell, executive director of NAMI Ohio. “Ingrid is my hero. She really is.”

Silvian, who lives in Groveport, is the only founding board member still active in the local NAMI chapter. She hasn’t felt ready to retire from the volunteer work she loves.

“We cannot pray mental illness away, we cannot hope it away,” Silvian said.

She thinks the answers lie where they always have: in better access to effective treatment, in education, in awareness and in combating stigma. But plenty of public policy debates and issues simmer within those broad goals.

Fears over the future of the state’s Medicaid expansion, for example, will be on the minds of many at this year’s walk. That coverage has enabled thousands of Ohioans to obtain badly needed mental-health treatment.

“Some walks can tend to become a commercialized thing,” said Hallie Israel, the walk manager for NAMI Franklin County. “With NAMI, it’s so much more than a walk in the park.”

She expects upwards of 1,000 participants for the event, which raises money for the programs — support groups, classes, training and more — that NAMI provides to the community free of charge.

Silvian will be making a statement, too, with her “Team Anosognosia” donors and walkers. Anosognosia refers to a lack of insight or awareness, and the term is used to describe a symptom of severe mental illness in which a person is unable to recognize his or her condition. That lack of recognition, families say, keeps many from getting the help and medications they need to stay healthy and safe.

“Why would you get treatment if you don’t think you’re sick?” Silvian said. “My daughter exercises her civil right not to accept treatment all the time. And it doesn’t get her anywhere.”

Such gut-wrenching struggles have made Silvian and many other family advocates proponents of court-ordered outpatient treatment, an option they see as potentially life-saving. Although a law that took effect in 2014 clarifies the authority of Ohio judges to order outpatient treatment, supporters say there’s been little movement.

And not everyone agrees on the need for a legal pathway outside of existing commitment statutes. Gabe Howard, a mental-health activist and former NAMI walk manager, still thinks the law could lead to a loss of rights and dignity for people who, like him, have a mental illness.

But he never doubts Silvian’s heart.

“This argument or discussion or debate or whatever you want to call it comes from the right place,” Howard said. “From each of our vantage points, we’re both correct. I get it, and I love Ingrid. She is a wonderful, wonderful woman.”

Silvian immigrated to the United States from Germany. “I was a war bride,” she said, smiling. “I’m still a member of the only World War II Brides Association.”

She didn’t want to leave her mother, but was eager to turn away from the devastation. Silvian can’t help but think the experience is intertwined with her sense of advocacy and hope. “This is such a wonderful country,” she said. “Here, I always think, can’t we make things better?”

Her first marriage ended and a second was happier. But everyone, including her two other children, suffered along with her daughter. “Mental illness, mental illness,” Silvian said. “It always comes back to that.”

Russell, the Ohio NAMI director, said he has rarely seen someone stick by a loved one through the decades as Silvian has. The unending sadness and stress of searching for help, of watching a son or daughter behave irrationally and deteriorate to the brink of death, can cause many to withdraw.

Silvian still picks up the phone. “If a 19-year-old develops schizophrenia, Ingrid will talk to that mom,” Russell said. “I’ve seen her in action. She’s helped thousands, and I’m blessed to know her.”

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