Melody Worsham is a mother, teacher and volunteer who says she's fought a 30-year battle with a disease that mental health professionals were supposed to help her with but instead left her feeling humiliated.
"I live with PTSD, with psychotic features. And as soon as someone hears the word 'psychotic,' they think I am that person that's in some sneaky little dark closet and I'm doing some sneaky little back-channel thing on social media, and I'm about to pull out an AR-15 and get on the rooftop somewhere," she said. "I don't have a dangerous bone in my body ... It angers me so bad because it puts a barrier up to people asking for help because it's that automatic."
Worsham penned an open letter to the state's attorney general pointing to a 2016 Department of Justice lawsuit against the state of Mississippi for unnecessarily institutionalizing adults and children with mental health disabilities.
A federal judge agreed there should be more community-based options.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness in Mississippi says even the state's big institutions weren't providing the help people needed.
Sitaniel Wimbley is the executive director of NAMI Mississippi.
"Prime example: A lot of the facilities are in bigger cities in the state. So, if you live in a rural area, you have to manage getting to the facility," she said. "Once you get there, you have to make sure you have an appointment. If you have an appointment, there has to be insurance. So, there's a lot of things that go into actually getting treatment."
Now in 2022, the Magnolia State — known for catfish, cotton and Southern charm — is still trying to figure out how to provide patients with the necessary care closer to home.
The good news is changes are on the horizon. For starters, the state is taking full advantage of the new National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
"When someone calls 988, they will be either sent to an officer who has to come out — and their person should be trained to help with mental health — or a clinician can come out to that person's home to try to do an assessment," Wimbley said. "So, things like that are making a difference."
Another area program making strides is NAMI's Peer-to-Peer Program. Jessica James is one of the peers specialists in recovery who's helping others.
"We have people who live with the mental illness that are in recovery, that are able to help others in their recovery," she said.
James is a longtime Mississippi resident who is proud of her accomplishments. She achieved her associate degree with honors, raised two successful kids and has been a peer support specialist with NAMI for eight years.
For James, it was a long path to get to where she is today.
"I really didn't know what was going on with me until it was 2014," she said.
James says she suffers from anxiety, depression.
"I also was told that I may have a little PTSD as well," she continued.
James recalls one tough day on a job she loved. She'd been missing work but couldn't muster the strength to get out of bed.
"I would have a boost of energy at times," she said. "But then, all of a sudden, it just seemed like my whole world just went and crashed down."
A supervisor called her in an after seeing her doctor's note
James says the supervisor dialed the number to make sure the note was real. It was devastating for her.
"I'm seeing her do this in front of me ... I felt like I'm being punished for me being sick and like she didn't care," she said.
That hopeless feeling didn't last long, though. She remembered seeing the NAMI promotion table at a health fair she went to with her son. That led to a partnership between the two.
As a peer, James now helps others push through the mental health issues she faced.
Worsham is also a peer support specialist. Newsy caught up with her during work at the Mental Health Association of South Mississippi.
"This isn't about looking at a disease," she said. "It's not what's wrong with you, it's what's strong with you. That's our focus with our people."
She says the program isn't what you would call "clinical." It's actually unique because there are no psychiatrists or licensed therapists involved, and it's voluntary.
"There's no one-size-fits-all model. And that's something that those of us with lived experience, we do understand," Worsham said. "We are about sitting down and exploring that with you and finding out what your pathway is and what's going to work. And it might be a Franken-program, you know, you do a little 12-step thing here, or you might have some spiritual thing going on, and then you need a drop-in, you know, meditation."
A 2019 report by Mental Health America says peer support specialists lower the cost of mental health services and help reduce the rate of hospital recidivism.
The National Institute for Health Research also found people receiving peer support lowered the risk of being hospitalized by 14% and significantly increased recovery.
"The state of Mississippi is now starting to focus on it a little bit more and make sure that peer specialists are in every county," Wimbley said. "I think last year, there were 164 trained to be peer specialists across the state. And then some of those, I want to say between 10 and 12, were actually in jail systems. So, they can now lead others through their mental health journey and say, 'It's OK not to be OK."
As the Magnolia State tries to grow its mental health programs to satisfy the Department of Justice, mental health advocates are helping to cultivate the Peer-to-Peer program to provide help to those in need.
Newsy’s mental health initiative “America’s Breakdown: Confronting Our Mental Health Crisis” brings you deeply personal and thoughtfully told stories on the state of mental health care in the U.S. Click here to learn more.