This weekend’s National Alliance on Mental Illness Walk is personal for the event’s keynote speaker.
Connie Grunder’s journey with mental illness began in 2015, when her son, Zachary, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychosis.
“I knew nothing about mental illness at the time,” Grunder said.
The Ankeny mother will share her story at Saturday’s NAMI Iowa’s walk in Johnston.
Zachary Grunder lived with his mother on and off after graduating from Ankeny High School in 2008, working various jobs and attending Des Moines Metro Area Community College.
As someone who at the time knew nothing about bipolar disorder, she says she didn’t always know how to help.
Zachary’s case worker told her about NAMI. Connie Grunder got involved and went through the Family-to-Family program offered for relatives and friends of people with mental health conditions.
“I contacted them at a very low point,” she said. “I had a very good support system with immediate family members and friends but as a parent, it can be devastating.”
In July 2017, Connie received a phone call a couple weeks after Zachary moved out of her home. It was a park ranger from the Grand Canyon.
“They said they found Zachary’s car out there,” she said. “The next morning, they took a helicopter and found him at the bottom of the canyon.”
Connie said Zachary, 27 at the time of his death, had self-medicated with drugs and alcohol before he died. His autopsy found no drugs in his system other than his prescribed medication, but he had been drinking, which Connie said may have contributed to his fall.
After Zachary’s death, Connie learned that none of Zachary’s friends knew he had a mental health condition.
“I found out he was embarrassed to tell any of his friends,” she said. “They didn’t even know until after he passed. After that, I thought, ‘If there ever comes an opportunity in my life, I will be the biggest proponent for mental health.'”
Now, as a speaker with NAMI’s End the Silence program, she goes anywhere she’s invited to talk about mental health and try to end the stigma surrounding it.
She shares her son’s story and how his death has affected her and her other children.
“It’s kind of a way for me to heal,” she said. “You never heal from losing a child, but what it does do is makes me feel that Zachary didn’t die in vain. He couldn’t tell his story when he was alive, so I’m going to tell somebody.”
Connie said the importance of her work was solidified for her after visiting a school in the Des Moines area. She hands out index cards during these stops so students can write questions they may not feel comfortable asking out loud.
“This one young girl had written on her card that she needed help because he had just recently started cutting herself,” she said. “I read it and gave the card to the counselor. Later, I followed up to make sure someone made contact. If I can touch a life, that makes my journey a little better.”
Gage Miskimen is a news reporter mostly covering West Des Moines, Waukee, and Clive for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-284-8234. Follow him on Twitter @gagemisky