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Mrs. United States Educates America about Mental Illness

Dr. Gariane Gunter, a psychiatrist in South Carolina, recently was crowned Mrs. United States and will dedicate her reign to raising public awareness about mental illness.
Gunter, who witnessed her own mother’s struggles with bipolar disorder, never expected to pursue a career in psychiatry. Instead, for much of her life, she envisioned herself as a pediatrician.

While Gunter was working towards her degree from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, she found encouragement in the voice of a young girl.

“During my third-year clinical rotations in medical school, I fell in love with psychiatry, especially working with children and adolescents,” Gunter said. “There was a patient who inspired me, guiding me to my decision, and I never looked back.”

The Mrs. United States National Pageant, founded in 1986, celebrates and rewards married women of beauty and intelligence from all 50 states and U.S. territories. Contestants, who must be a married U.S. citizen and at least 21 years of age, are judged on personal interviews, as well as swimsuit and evening gown competitions.

What does Mrs. United States want Americans to know about mental illness?

First, she wants everyone to understand that mental illness is a biological, physical illness, just like diabetes or high blood pressure.  It’s an illness of the brain, instead of the heart or liver.

While Gunter is committed to sharing a message of hope that early diagnosis, treatment and recovery are possible, she understands the challenges of stigma.

“Many of the patients we see have not told their families about their illness,” she explained. “They make these psychiatric appointments in secret, for fear of being ostracized within their own families. This makes the world a scary place for them. There’s a fear of being turned away.”

Gunter is fighting this isolating stigma with education in her home state and across the country.

“Much of the stigma associated with mental illness is a fear of the unknown. People don’t understand that medication works, that those living with mental illness are our families, friends, neighbors and coworkers. I want to make people more comfortable talking about mental illness, and encourage those who need help to reach out and get it.”

As part of her campaign, Gunter has joined forces with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In April, she spoke at the NAMI Mid-Carolina Walk during her reign as Mrs. South Carolina.

“There were so many people-- people living with mental illness, families, friends, physicians-- fighting for the same cause. It was very powerful and inspiring to know we’re not alone in this fight. It gave me extra motivation. I feel the change in the future of mental health and I can’t wait until next year.”

At the Walk, Gunter first learned of NAMI’s Breaking the Silence (BTS) curriculum, which is designed to educate students in upper elementary school, middle school and high school about mental illness. The program was created in 1999 by the NAMI-Queens/Nassau Education Committee.

Impressed with the BTS program, Gunter contacted the principal of an elementary school in her hometown. She will teach the course to all fifth grade classes starting in September and recently joined the South Carolina Breaking the Silence committee, which is working to bring BTS to all schools in the state.

“I want to teach students about mental illness now, so that in the future they can understand others living with illness,” she said. “And if they need help themselves, they won’t be afraid to reach out and get support.”

Gunter hopes this education will endure for “the rest of their lives.” 

“It’s wonderful that Dr. Gunter has chosen mental illness as her platform,” said Bill Lindsey, executive director of NAMI South Carolina. “It’s great to see her breaking the silence about stigma in our communities.”

Dr. Gunter is a third-year psychiatry resident in Columbia, South Carolina and will begin a child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship next year. She lives with her husband and two-year old daughter in Batesburg-Leesville and will emcee the NAMI South Carolina state conference on October 24-25.