BETHESDA — The Montgomery County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI MC) held its annual Heroes Gala at the Pooks Hill Road Marriott in Bethesda Friday night. The Gala serves as a fundraiser to support NAMI’s goals of raising awareness of mental illness and providing treatment and support to those affected by it.

The Gala is also an occasion for honoring various individuals and organizations for their efforts in support of those goals. Chick Hernandez, a D.C. native and Emmy-winning sportscaster, and Andy Pollin, a longtime sports radio commentator who hosts programs on WJFK and WTOP, served as the event’s emcees.

NAMI MC named former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien as its 2018 Hero of the Year. Rypien played with the Redskins for six years and led them to victory in Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, where he was named MVP.  Earlier this year, Rypien revealed that he suffers from mental illness, including anxiety and depression.

“We need to end the stigma around mental illness,” Rypien said in his remarks. “We have conversations around the dinner table about cancer, heart disease, and various other issues that affect our lives, but mental illness isn’t something we talk about with our peers, our family, and our friends, and that’s something that we need to be able to do. I chose, in part, to make myself vulnerable so that others like me may do the same.”

Rypien also called attention to the rate of suicide among American service members, with some estimates placing the figure as high as 22 per day.

“What we did with the Redskins was phenomenal, but today I have a new calling,” Rypien said. “My calling is to help my peers, the guys that I played with, so that the Dave Duersons, the Andre Waterses [NFL players who committed suicide], my little cousin Rick Rypien who played for the National Hockey League and took his own life, all of our veterans, get help. And for all those institutionalized, we need to make sure that when they come out of the institution, that they have housing, a place to go.”

Dr. Alan Goodwin, who served as principal of Walt Whitman High School for 14 years until his retirement earlier this year, received the Wayne Fenton Memorial Award. Fenton, a psychiatrist who conducted extensive research into subtypes of schizophrenia, was killed in his Bethesda office in 2006 by a 19-year-old patient.

Goodwin received the award for his efforts to promote students’ mental well-being during his tenure at Whitman. In 2004, he initiated the Stressbusters Committee, an organization of parents and teachers dedicated to helping students manage the social stress of high school. He also implemented the support networks umttr (which stands for “you matter”) and Sources of Strength and worked personally with several struggling students.

Goodwin said he was accepting the award on behalf of all the teachers, counselors and other school staff who help students overcome mental illness.

“I think our nation’s number one priority should be to improve the state of its mental health care programs,” Goodwin said.  “Just this past week, we celebrated Veterans Day, and yet a discharged veteran often has to wait up to six months to receive counseling, a horrible statistic.”

Stephen and Janna Marks, founders of the Orange Wednesday Foundation, offered a testimonial. The Markses’ 15-year-old son Noah took his own life in late 2015.  The Orange Wednesday Foundation — named after Noah’s tradition of wearing orange pants every Wednesday, is a nonprofit that seeks to end the stigma around mental illness. It provides grants for the study of mental illness and scholarships for students to study art in college, as Noah had hoped to do.

The Markses partnered with NAMI to launch a “NAMI in the Lobby” program, which makes information on mental illness available in the lobbies of several local businesses.

Audra Dugue, an 18-year veteran of the Montgomery County Crisis Center, received the Crisis Intervention Team Instructor of the Year Award. Montgomery County Police Officer Laura Blankman received the CIT Officer of the Year Award.

“I was thrilled with this year’s Gala,” said NAMI MC executive director Stephanie Rosen. “Our honoree spoke to a different segment of people affected with mental illness than we usually hear about. We had a great turnout, with over 250 people in attendance.”

Rosen added, “The intersection of mental health and education is very important, so it was wonderful to have such a strong showing by MCPS. We had raised about $90,000 before the Gala; after the Gala, I’d say we’ve raised around $125,000. After the Markses shared the story of the tragic loss of their son, we have people making $2,000 and $2,500 donations.”

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