NAMI Walks Your Way: Mental health awareness fundraiser hosted on the bluff

Published 5:00 am Sunday, September 18, 2022

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NATCHEZ — The National Alliance on Mental Illness and other groups who stand behind suicide prevention and mental health walked Saturday on the Natchez Bluff to raise money and awareness of the cause.

Supporters of NAMI-Four Rivers and mental health started showing up to the bandstand as early as 8 a.m. for presentations and a walkathon around the bluff walking trail.

Guest speakers included John Grady Burns, who is the president of NAMI’s Gold Sponsor Y’all Means All Natchez; Rick Varino, a mental health crisis therapist with Southwest Mississippi Mental Health; Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson; Chaplain Jan Mills who is a Natchez suicide survivors support group leader; and Miss Mississippi Teen Volunteer from Lawrence County Elaina Uzzle along with NAMI-Four Rivers representatives.

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Uzzle said she ran for the title in July on a suicide prevention platform after her best friend committed suicide. She contacted NAMI to be a part of Saturday’s event, she said.

“I’m touched every time I hear a story about someone whose life has been changed for the better, possibly even saved, because of the efforts of individuals who are willing to step out of their comfort zone to be of help to someone else,” Gibson said.

He recalled during his time in the ministry, before he became mayor, spending time with the grandmother of a young who had taken his own life.

“I had only been her pastor for one week,” Gibson said. “We sat together on his twin bed in his room in his house surrounded by all of his trophies, mementos and certificates. He was an outstanding young man who was actually on an athletic scholarship in his first year of college when this occurred. It came as a complete shock to everyone, his family and his friends. How could someone so gifted, so handsome, with the whole world before him take his own life?”

Gibson said, in praying with her and comforting her, they established a bond that lasted for several years before he was called to preach at her funeral.

“Years later, finally, people are understanding that there is an illness called mental illness and it is as profound an illness in our country as any other illness or disease,” he said.

In a recent development to better serve mental health patients, the mental health crises hotline was replaced with a three-digit number, 988, that anyone can call or text for immediate assistance in a mental health crisis.

Varino said he was once responsible for answering mental health calls to the crisis hotline during all hours of the day or night. Now, the 988 number is answered by those monitoring it 24-7 at an office in Jackson who can route calls to him as needed as well as to nearby law enforcement agencies in case of emergencies that he can’t get to fast enough, he said.

“A lot of people don’t know that our services are free of charge,” Varino said. “We have grants that will pay for our services and we have patient assistance programs that will help pay for your medications if you need medications as well.”

Varino said Southwest Mississippi Mental Health Services nine counties in the region and he serves Port Gibson, Fayette, Meadville, Woodville, Natchez and Centreville from the local office on South Wall Street in Natchez.

“As a crisis therapist, I can take walk-in, face-to-face visits. I don’t have a caseload and so if you need to walk into any of our offices there should be a crisis therapist available to help you.”

Coming up this month, NAMI will have its regular monthly Family Support Group from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 20, at Merit Health and on Zoom.

On Sept. 27, NAMI will revive its free Family & Friends Mental Health Seminar Lunch & Learn from 11:45 to 1 p.m. at the Natchez Convention Center. Participants learn about diagnoses, treatment, recovery, communication strategies, self-care, crisis preparation and NAMI resources. Register at

To learn more about NAMI’s mental health education and treatment efforts, or how to make contributions, visit