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Audrey Gozdiskowski, left, is recognized by NAMI President Paul Radzavicz with the Lester Verano Advocacy Award.

Audrey Gozdiskowski of Tunkhannock was presented the Lester Verano Advocacy Award by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in recognition of her efforts to assist the mentally ill.

The presentation took place last Wednesday (Oct. 4) by Paul Radzavicz, president of the Luzerne Wyoming NAMI chapter.

“About one out of four people will be affected by mental illness in some form,” Gozdiskowski explained.

Gozdiskowski said she initially became interested in the plight of the mentally ill because two family members suffered from the affliction. Although Gozdiskowski only provided a few specifics, the experience had such a profound affect she decided to attend a 12-week course provided by NAMI geared to helping people deal with such situations.

“Even before I finished the classes I was writing letters to policy makers about what can be done about such situations,” she explained.

Gozdiskowski’s late father suffered from mental illness, to the point where he was unable to care for her from the time she was three years old.

“I had to grow up with out him,” Gozdiskowski explained.

“Today, there are whole recovery programs available that can help people lead more productive lives,” she said.

Gozdiskowski has served as president of the of the Luzerne-Wyoming chapter of NAMI, and provides assistance to those suffering from mental illness as a certified peer support specialist.

“The best gift you can give someone is your presence,” Gozdiskowski explained. “There are other forms of treatment besides medication. Other important tools are community support and education.”

Although acts of extreme violence by the mentally ill often receive a great deal of media attention, Gozdiskowski emphasized that this represents only a very small portion of those suffering from the affliction.

“People with mental illness are more prone to be victims,” she explained.

Because mentally ill people tend to be very quiet and keep to themselves, they are much more likely to being bullied.

The signs of mental illness often start while children are in middle school or high school.

“You have to be careful to make certain it’s not just teenage angst,” Gozdiskowski said. “But left untreated, many teenagers suffering from mental health issues will turn to drugs and alcohol for relief.”

“A lot of these people are very lonely,” she continued “They usually have only one or two friends. When these people reach their late teens and early 20s, their friends often go off to college or get jobs that require them to move out of the area.”

Although mental illness can be treated,a many suffering from it avoid seeking help due to the stigma associated with the affliction.

Many times, while helping a client look for work, Gozdiskowski has seen employers automatically disqualify a candidate based solely on the fact he or she has a history of mental illness.

“People have to realize that being treated for mental illness is no different than a person who can’t walk using a wheelchair,” she said. “Or those receiving medical treatments for cancer.”

Those receiving proper treatment for mental health disorders are able to led healthy productive lives, Gozdiskowski explained.

“But choices for treatment are often more limited in rural areas,” she said. “There’s a high turnover of psychiatrists and psychologists. A patient can spend time, getting used to someone, then suddenly have to start over with someone new.”

As a result, many of these people fall through the cracks, she said. So it’s important that they get treatment, as well as support from family and friends

“I work with people to meet their needs,” Gozdiskowski explained. “Things like food, shelter and clothing. Without help, these people would only have very minimum necessities to live on.”

Many times, all those suffering from mental illness need is a kind word or assistance in simple tasks.

“Volunteer to be a friend,” she said. “I found out that by working with them, helping them overcome their problems, it gave back so much more than I gave. I’m blessed to be able to do that.”