To kick-off Mental Health Awareness Month in Superior, 100 green balloons will be handed out at Center City Park this afternoon.

"To me green is the color of spring, of joy and of growth," said Nancy Minahan, a member of the Douglas County Mental Health Coordinated Community Response Team. "That's what 100 green balloons are about, is joy."

The event begins at 3 p.m. Free balloons will be handed out to the first 100 children and adults will receive free lapel ribbons. Information about mental health resources will be available.

"We try to emphasize that mental illness is a serious medical illness, it's a brain illness," Minahan said. "It's not bad behavior, it's not a bad choice."

"I like to liken it to diabetes, because there's no stigma to diabetes, but it's a chronic, long-long thing," said Tracy Henegar, another member of the response team. "There are things you can do to change lifestyle that can make a huge impact, but sometimes you need medication and sometimes that's a lifelong need, and that's OK. Because it's a biological illness. And that's OK to have that medical treatment for a chronic, physical illness."

Treatment can make a difference.

"Most individuals who experience a mental illness can recover and live a full life, a happy, productive, employed, satisfying life, although they may need to continue to manage their illness," Minahan said.

The first episode of a mental illness most commonly occurs between the ages of 15 and 25, she said, and early treatment is crucial.

"Starting treatment early provides a much better prognosis, so we want people to get treatment right close to their first episode," Minahan said.

Yet research shows that the average delay between the first episode and treatment is 10 years.

"It's one of the most dangerous things that afflicts people in health care in general, partially because it's so silent," Superior Mayor Jim Paine said. "It's very difficult for people to talk about the mental health challenges they experience, and that makes it that much more difficult to get help. There's a lot of stigma, some very real shame around it. And so it prevents people from getting the treatment they need, and in many cases that can be downright deadly."

Reponse team meetings pinpointed the mental health needs of youngsters as the focus of this month's events.

"What we heard repeatedly from many different providers and schools that were represented at the table is that the rates that they are seeing in youth in our community have skyrocketed," Henegar said, including elevated instances of self-harm.

A free youth mental health first aid class is being offered to community members who volunteer with teens, including coaches, 4-H leaders and church youth pastors. The May 5 event, which runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Essentia Health in Superior, has openings available.

Two additional training events for professionals are being offered May 22 and 23; only five slots are left, and there is a cost involved.

A free suicide awareness gatekeeper's class will be offered May 5 at Essentia Health. Two time slots are available - 3-4:30 p.m. and 5:30-7 p.m.

Northland Healthy Minds, a collaborative of area business, organizations and people working to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness, has launched the national Make it OK campaign locally.

"We need to make it OK to talk about it, and we need to make it OK for them to seek help," Henegar said. "When we get to that place where we can talk about it and we can seek help, then it will be more recognized as a physical health illness, because it is a health illness, it is not a character flaw."

She stressed the need for more mental health care providers and a higher reimbursement rate in Wisconsin to cut down on waiting lists.

"We are delighted to see community members working to erase stigma around mental health," said Dayle Patterson, CEO of Lake Superior Community Health Center. "We are keenly aware of the great need for mental health services in the area and we are actively recruiting therapists to meet that need."

Paine said Douglas County and Superior are experiencing a mental health crisis that needs to be addressed at the state and federal government levels.

"I'd like to see the community start to rally around solutions," he said, and join together to make their voices heard in Madison and Washington, D.C.

Ongoing local efforts include classes on trauma-informed care, peer and family support groups provided by NAMI Douglas County and a new website that will list resources for those with mental health needs, douglascountyresource.com.

"My personal take is it shouldn't be about mental illness, it should be about mental health," Minahan said.

For more information, visit makeitok.org or www.northlandhealthyminds.org. Call (715) 398-6471 to register for the May 5 youth mental health first aid class; register for the suicide awareness class through Eventbrite.