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By Janette Vazquez, Miami Herald writer

Kathy Coppola’s younger brother stopped talking at age 30. At the table during family dinners, he took 10 minutes to respond when spoken to.

He was engaged to be married, maintained a good job in the federal government and had everything going for him, when out of nowhere he began to experience mental illness, Coppola said.

“I go back and look many times to see what could’ve triggered my brother’s mental illness but there was just nothing wrong with his life at that moment,” said Coppola, recently elected president of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) of Miami-Dade County.

Saturday night, NAMI will present its second annual Reel Minds Miami Mental Health Film Festival at University of Miami’s Donna E. Shalala Student Center Grand Ballroom. The film festival will be free and open to the public. Hors d’oeuvres and beverages will be served and musical entertainment will be provided by Fog Dog, a band made up of two NAMI Peers.

NAMI, established nationally in 1979, is the largest mental health advocacy organization in the country with about 1,110 affiliates. NAMI has several types of support and educational groups, including Family to Family and Peer to Peer, which are run by people in recovery or loved ones of someone with mental illness.

“NAMI empowers peer and family members through support and education offering hope and expectation for recovery,” Coppola said.

Not only has NAMI helped reduce the stigma of mental illness and helped many going through treatment and recovery, it has also lent support to family members such as Coppola, who feel lost, powerless and even guilty about their loved ones’ conditions.

During Saturday’s festival, filmmakers, experts and others affected by mental illness will share their experiences through the movies and their commentary.

Nigerian-American filmmaker Italome Ohikhuare will speak following a screening of Secrets for Strangers, a film about cultural stigmas associated with psychosis.

“In African cultures there is a lot of misconceptions and myths about mental illness that have to do with demonic possession and evil spirits,” said Ohikhuare, whose older brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 18.

Ohikhuare said that although her immediate family was very understanding about her brother’s condition, others in their community were not.

“The stigma is huge and hard to navigate around,” said Ohikhuare, who last year made a film called The Mermaid, which was developed through a fellowship from Sundance Institute and the Knight Foundation.

Other filmmakers will also attend the Reel Minds festival. Two sign language interpreters will interpret the films and the speeches, Coppola said.

Filmmaker Gabriel Rhenals will screen his powerful short movie, Semester of Madness, based on a college student’s journey through a time of confusion, paranoia and attempted suicide which led to a schizophrenia diagnosis.

Semester of Madness is an intense film based on a true story. Rhenals said he tried to capture the raw experience of mental illness.

“I wanted to be true to the mental illness experience and present it in a very stark, realistic and factual way,” Rhenals said. “I wanted to avoid a lot of the Hollywood-like melodrama that you see in films today.”

If you go...

▪ What: Reel Minds Miami Mental Health Film Festival

▪ When: 6 p.m. Saturday

▪ Where: University of Miami’s Donna E. Shalala Student Center Grand Ballroom, 1330 Miller Dr., Coral Gables

▪ Free: RSVP via Eventbrite at

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