Karla Smith was a vibrant, gregarious, articulate, intelligent and creative young woman from a supportive, close-knit middle class family. In 1996, during her sophomore year of college, Karla experienced her first major depression and suicide attempt. It was two years, and several cycles of depression, suicide attempts and erratic behavior before she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Though Karla and her family were finally able to attribute the high and low cycles to an actual illness, they were often lost in their search to find meaningful help for themselves and effective treatment for Karla.
The Smith family’s concerns for Karla’s health eased during a three year period when she stabilized on medications and therapy, excelled in college as a 4.0 student, became editor of the Oklahoma State University literary magazine, established meaningful friendships, and generally returned to a good life with managed bipolar disorder. In 2002, the stabilization ended; Karla spiraled through a severe manic episode and ensuing depression, which ultimately resulted in her suicide on January 13, 2003.
During her life, Karla was open about her illness, and following her death the Smith Family continued her willingness to share. At her wake service and in the days following her funeral, the family was surprised by how many people approached them with similar stories of family members and friends who had experienced mental health challenges and suicide. It became clear to the family that their willingness to tell their story opened the door for others to share similar experiences; the idea of a Foundation that enabled this sharing and support was born. The launch of Karla Smith Foundation was prefaced with a book authored by Tom Smith with writings by Karla’s twin brother Kevin and Karla herself, “The Tattered Tapestry – A Family’s Search for Peace with Bipolar Disorder.” The book shares Karla’s life, her illness of bipolar disorder, and the family’s reactions. It was released in the fall of 2005 as Karla Smith Foundation was incorporated as a non-profit charitable 501 c 3 and opened the doors to its first official support group. Tom, Fran and Kevin Smith, with the guidance of mental health professionals and support of affected families, had officially founded Karla Smith Foundation (KSF) with a mission to “support families and friends affected by mental illness and suicide.”
In our eighth year of operation, KSF has grown from a local Southern Illinois based organization, to an organization with national reach. Karla Smith Foundation has strategically entered into partnerships and collaborations with a variety of organizations, public and private, to enhance our reach and grow our mission. We have implemented a strategic approach to growth with focus on three key areas: family support, education, and awareness/stigma reduction.
Demonstrating our collaborative focus, we work closely with the St. Clair County Mental Health Board and actively engage with local providers within the St. Louis Metropolitan area such as St. Elizabeth’s Hospital’s Behavioral Health Care department, Clayton Behavioral, Recovery 360, Chestnut Health Systems, Gateway Regional Mental Health Center, Madison County Community Collaboration, a variety of school districts and others. We sit on many committees such as the St. Clair County Youth Coalition, the Family Voices committee, and St. Clair County’s Community Suicide Prevention initiative. We attend meetings for NAMI and DBSA chapters, and participate in numerous events and conferences sponsored by other organizations.
Our Family Support Program includes support groups, resource assistance, navigation assistance for families entering the mental health system, sponsored family activities (Family Connect), and financial aid for families who need counseling assistance themselves while supporting a loved one.
Family Mental Illness Support Groups offer families and caregivers the opportunity to share with and learn from others who experience the challenges of supporting a person with a mental illness. “A Balanced Life: 9 Strategies for Coping with the Mental Health Problems of a Loved One,” authored by KSF President, Tom Smith and published by Hazelden Press in 2008, provides the model for this support group program. The strategies explained in this book are demonstrated by stories of hope shared by our support group members. Each group member receives a copy of this book.
Suicide Survivor Support Groups offer support and understanding to those who have lost a loved one to suicide. Tom Smith’s recent book, “The Unique Grief of Suicide: Questions & Hope” was published in February of 2013. This publication explores the “whys” of suicide and how to process the unique grief experienced by suicide survivors. This book is used as a tool in our Suicide Survivor Support groups and is provided to each group member.
In January of 2012, Karla Smith Foundation received funding from the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership (ICMHP) to employ a Regional Family Support Coordinator. With this grant, KSF has been able to further expand our Family Mental Illness Support program to reach the families of children and adolescents throughout thirty-three counties in Southern Illinois. This largely underserved, rural demographic now receives direct access to our programming through support groups, resource and navigation assistance.
In September of 2012 the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership invited Karla Smith Foundation to become more involved with the State’s commitment to the families of children and adolescents with mental health concerns. With financial support from the ICMHP, we now also employ and oversee the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership Statewide Coordinator of Family Support Services.
In 2008, the University of Illinois-Urbana completed an independent study of KSF support groups and programs using data gathered from support group members. The results showed an overwhelming positive response to the approach used by KSF and confirmed the need for our expanded services. With this endorsement, KSF has expanded, establishing programming at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, St. Louis, and Holland, MI. In May 2013, KSF received a grant from the Milwaukee, WI based Charles E. Kubly Foundation to support expansion of child and adolescent support group and family navigation services in the greater Milwaukee area. We are also presently expanding adult support groups in Breese, IL.
Due to the generous support of the St. Clair County IL Mental Health Board, in October of 2013, Karla Smith Foundation will launch a program designed to assist families with the unique situation of supporting a transitional aged loved one with mental illness. Professional support with a Master's Level Social Worker will be offered to these families as well as Transitional Age Family Support Groups.
KSF regularly speaks at conferences, mental health organizations, local civic organizations, faith-based communities, schools and hospitals. Presentations include such topics as:
In addition, KSF is currently piloting a new educational program titled “Think About It” for school aged children and adolescents (6th – 12th grade). This program engages educators, school support personnel, parents and students in an open dialogue about mental health and stigma.
In 2009, KSF partnered with Bring Change 2 Mind, a national non-profit organization founded by actress Glenn Close, in an effort to more proactively reduce stigma. A two-day mental health awareness event with Glenn Close and the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Louis sponsored by KSF has helped KSF achieve greater reach within the St. Louis Metropolitan area and nationally. As a family support program named on the Bring Change 2 Mind website, KSF now receives communications from families around the country who need the support and resource guidance that KSF provides.
Continuing emphasis on awareness and stigma reduction, KSF co-sponsors an annual conference with other mental health organizations, “When Mental Illness Hits Home.” This conference hosts a variety of speakers and provides educational platforms that emphasize the significance of family support, and encourages families to seek the help they need.
In July 2013, Karla Smith Foundation will launch a new awareness campaign, “I WAS NOT BUILT TO BRAKE,” designed to inspire women to acknowledge the need for and to integrate their mental and physical health.