"Had to be crazy."
"He was just nuts."
Those types of simplistic observations were common after a young man entered a Connecticut elementary school in December and killed 26 people — also after two off-duty police officers shot and killed a seemingly deranged, pistol-carrying naked woman in Hernando County in October.
The explanations for those incidents, however, are anything but simple, and have sparked debate across the country about issues ranging from gun control to mental health services.
Officials with the National Alliance on Mental Illness/NAMI Hernando say they are finding increased interest in programs they offer that target people who suffer from mental illness, their families and those whose jobs put them in contact with the afflicted. And they want to get the word out to more people.
At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, NAMI will open its doors to the public at the Beautiful Mind Outreach Center, 10554 Spring Hill Drive, Spring Hill, for an evening of meetings with speakers regarding mental health and mental illness issues.
NAMI Hernando executive director Rita Tice welcomes the broader attention, saying that mental illnesses have been misunderstood, denied and swept under the rug for too long.
"People are realizing they have a problem in the household and they better do something about it," Tice said. "The need is critical."
The emotionally sick are "just like you and I, but they have a brain illness," said Tice, the mother of a sufferer. "It's a mental disease."
In January, NAMI embarked on a new round of regular programming.
"Family to Family," a 12-week course, involves families that have a mentally ill person in their ranks. Mothers, dads, siblings and grandparents learn about illnesses such as schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder and bipolar disease.
"We tell people how to deal with loved ones," said Tice. "Sometimes it's just wording — how you talk to them. If you know how to think with them, how to understand them, it's just so much easier to deal with."
On Monday evenings and Wednesday afternoons, support groups gather the afflicted in one room, with family members and caregivers in another.
Tice calls the sharing of experiences "in-the-line-of-fire training."
Many with brain disease have no friends, she said.
"They're not very social. Mental illness is so isolating."
Getting together, they build friendships.
"Friendship is very important in a mental illness situation," she said.
Beyond the classroom setting, the patient-clients join for planned activities.
Tice noted a 20-something whose parents pushed him to go bowling with a group. Initially, he went, but isolated himself on the fringe.
"Now he participates," Tice said. "He goes bowling and he bowls. Now he has some friends. The couple found that their lives have changed."
A 10-week "Peer to Peer" course puts clients negotiating recovery with two leaders who have their mental illness under control.
"NAMI Basics" focuses over six weeks on mentally sick children and adolescents and their caregivers.
The heightened interest in mental health issues locally may not be totally due to crimes that gain wide publicity, said David Welch, president of the NAMI Hernando board of directors.
"We're doing a better job of advertising," Welch said. "We're getting more requests — agencies asking for our services. All of ours are free."
Also, he said, recently released state Health Department statistics may have raised awareness. Among counties, Hernando ranked first in Florida in reported domestic violence cases and near the top in the number of mentally and emotionally disabled people. The county's suicide rate is 50 percent higher than the state average, and Hernando is near the bottom in availability of mental health professionals and treatment facilities.
Welch said he's unsure why the numbers are so grim, though he has a few guesses.
"We have such a community of outsiders, not cohesive. People tend to isolate, so they don't have somebody to lean on" in times of emotional upheaval, he said.
"Also, the bad economy, bad housing, bad drug sector. All these bad factors, then people start to get stressed. If there's a lot of stress, you get more mental illness. It's a perfect storm."
It also has been difficult to entice doctors who treat mental illness to the area, he said.
Westbridge Community Services, west of Brooksville, where Welch serves as counselor, opened just a year ago. It's a residential diagnosis and treatment center for men with severe mental illness and addiction problems.
Nearby Springbrook Hospital is designated as the county's Baker Act facility. Florida's Baker Act authorizes the court to order a 72-hour detainment and mental evaluation of a person deemed a danger to himself or others.
Mental health treatment, however, must be preceded by awareness and understanding, Tice said.
"Families themselves are sometimes in denial," she said. "There's such a stigma attached to (mental illness)."
And with a dearth of knowledge about mental health in the general populace, Tice said, "people are falling through the cracks."
NAMI Hernando is devoted to sharing the knowledge and experience it has, Tice and Welch said.
The organization is supported financially by donations, a few churches and the United Way of Hernando County.
"We just kind of live on air," said Tice, the only paid employee, and for a mere 12 hours a week. "I call NAMI the little engine that could."
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]