Alex Miller explains what’s it’s like after you learn about mental illness and see its signs.
“It’s like when you’re considering buying a new car at the dealership and decide you want a red car,” she says. “Suddenly you see lots of red cars on the road.”
The stigma that surrounds mental illness makes it especially hard to discuss or even access information about, despite its prevalence. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five American adults experience mental illness, which is about 43.8 million people. And the impact of untreated mental illness can be fatal. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the country.
On Oct. 12, Miller is volunteering at the Runway 2 Life fashion show fundraiser at Main Street Station. For the second Runway 2 Life fashion show, a variety of local and national brands and boutiques are showing their fall collections including White House Black Market, Lilly Pulitzer, Firefly Lane Boutique, Simple Soul, and Evolve. Some of the models walking down the runway have their own experiences with mental illness. Leading up to the event, they’ve shared their stories on the Runway 2 Life Facebook page.
The event is part of a growing movement led by Alicia Amsler, owner of Alicia’s Day Spa and founder of Runway 2 Life. Amsler’s own experience with a former employee sparked the concept: She had fired the employee after witnessing a change in her attitude and performance. The employee came back years later to ask Amsler for forgiveness.
“I didn’t understand when I fired her,” she says. “I didn’t understand the signs when she came back.”
The employee made a hair appointment with Amsler three days after this reconciliation. Three days later she killed herself.
Amsler began looking for resources to make sure it never happened again. She found NAMI and had an idea. “How powerful is our industry that we have people sitting in our chairs for so long?” she asks.
The idea was to train stylists like herself and those working in her salon to talk to people about mental illness and to invite other salons in the region to do the same.
“We’ve seen this with human resource departments in large companies,” says Jeff Conley, Program Coordinator of NAMI of Central Virginia. “This is a first for the the salon world as far as I know.”
Conley developed a two-hour mental health awareness training for local stylists in Richmond. Thirty to forty stylists attended and learned the signs and symptoms of mental illness and depression.
“Within a month or two we learned that stylists were not afraid to ask their clients a little more,” Conley says.
“You touch so many people literally and figuratively,” says Lucas Schaffer, a stylist at A Head of Hair salon. “It’s very intimate shampooing, coloring and cutting their hair. Because of what we do, it gives us a window of opportunity to talk about situations that may be quite difficult to talk about. We don’t have a license in psychology, but a lot of people sit in our chairs and talk about a lot of the same problems they would tell a therapist.”
Schaffer took one of the initial NAMI trainings Amsler organized for stylists in Richmond. “I never knew what an incredible freedom I would find in talking about such a sensitive subject,” he says.
Since the class, Schaffer says five of his clients have reached out to ask him more about mental illness because of concerns they had for nephews, daughters, best friends, and others.
“If I know someone has a mental illness or has contemplated suicide, I can lead them in the direction to get the proper help,” he says.
Runway 2 Life has brought similar trainings to the area for not only salons, but congregations and hotels. She has another training for local stylists in the works for November. She envisions Runway 2 Life as training instructors to offer customized mental health trainings to salons and more around the country. The Oct. 12 event will help fund this growing effort and benefit NAMI.
The event, with all its glitz and glam, is meant to bring people together in a fun way "break the stigma and get people talking," says Schaffer.
Runway 2 Life Fashion Show is held at Main Street Station on Friday, Oct. 12. Tickets start at $45. Purchase them at www. Runway2life.com.