I first learned about mental illness when I was in the eighth grade.

We had a unit on the subject in my health class and It. Scared. Me. To. Death. Our teacher gave us a list of symptoms, and I was pretty sure I had all of them except for the part where I thought I was Napoleon.

It didn't help that the old state hospital was just a few blocks away from our junior high school. It loomed at the end of Center Street in Provo like the world's scariest movie set. Foreboding. Isolated. Austere. White as bleached bones.

You could easily imagine that a whole raft of B-movie horror films must have been filmed there once.

Like Weeping Marys and Ouija boards, the state hospital also loomed large in the stories my girlfriends and I told each other at slumber parties. Stories about patients who escaped and hid in the backseat of your car, just waiting for the opportunity to leap out at you like Norman Bates.

The state hospital was the ultimate Hotel of Last Resort, and I was secretly terrified that I was headed there myself. I'd taken notes in health class. I had all the symptoms. I was going crazy.

I confessed these worries to my dad one night after dinner as he sat on the edge of his bed, folding clean socks. I knew he'd minored in sociology at Utah State University, which (I hoped) was almost as good as minoring in psychology. Maybe he could save me.

"Why do you think you're going crazy?" he asked, not laughing.

I told him about "The Symptoms." I told him I was afraid of the state hospital and its patients. I told him I worried that I'd end up there one day just like Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

"Listen," my dad said, "the only difference between you and me and the patients in the hospital is a matter of degree. They're people, Sweetheart. Just like us."

I swear to heaven, those were his exact words. And as it turns out, of course, my dad (aka the Utah State sociology minor) was right— something I now know from personal experience. Like millions of Americans, I have since seen the lives of people I love touched by mental illness.

And yes. It's just a matter of degree.

This is why I'm so big on NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) — it does for others what my dad did for me. Demystifies. Humanizes. Educates. Supports. Best of all, the organization offers realistic hope to families and individuals whose lives have been affected by mental illness in one form or another. The organization's motto says it best: "Treatment works, recovery is possible, there is hope, and you are not alone."

The Utah chapter of NAMI will sponsor a walk on Sept. 27 to raise both money and awareness of issues related to mental health. The walk starts at 10 a.m. at Franklin Covey Field. My team and I ("The Loose Cannons") will be there. You can be, too. Register to walk or sponsor someone else at www.nami.org/namiwalks. You can also call 801-323-9900 or e-mail [email protected].

Hope to see you!

E-mail: [email protected]