© 2023 Peoria Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Junior League of Peoria's 2023 community initiative centers around mental health awareness

 Members of the Junior League at an event earlier in February
Junior League of Peoria
Junior League of Peoria Facebook
Members of the Junior League at an event earlier in February

The Junior League of Peoria has officially announced what its new community initiative will be in 2023.

Heather Bean Oyler is chair of development for the league and was a key voice when the organization deliberated on initiative options.

“Mental health has been something that's affected me and my family a lot, and it's a very personal subject to me. And I started voicing up like, I feel like we need to focus on mental health,” said Oyler.

The Junior League officially announced its focus on mental health at the Little Black Dress Initiative cocktail party in February. Oyler said the group is currently in the information-gathering stage of the process.

“We're starting conversations. We're trying to see, where's the need? Who can we assist? Where can we get resources that we need to go from here?” Oyler said.

The Junior League of Peoria is a women’s development organization that has started several community projects within the Peoria area, which are then passed to an organization to continue the work. Examples include the Peoria Playhouse Children’s Museum, starting the Race for the Cure in Peoria, and most recently, the Kids in the Kitchen project, which has since been handed off to Peoria Grown.

 Heather Bean Oyler
Heather Bean Oyler
Heather Bean Oyler

Oyler said picking an organization to continue the work with mental health will be a key part of the process.

“There's so many things going on in Peoria right now with the development of Headington Oaks into the adolescent treatment center, with UnityPlace, with OSF putting out their new mental health facility,” said Oyler. “And we don't exactly know where we're going to end up making our biggest footprint yet, but that's what we're looking for help with as we talk to members in the community.”

Oyler said while the Junior League is smaller now than in years past and nothing is set in stone at this point, members are ready to tackle this new initiative head on, especially when it comes to the destigmatization of mental health.

“We should think of it almost as like a brain illness, not a mental illness. With saying mental illness, it’s such a negative connotation. With brain illness is the same thing as having, you know, cancer. It's the same thing as having a blood disease. It's the same thing as having any chronic condition,” said Oyler, who opened up about her own past with mental health struggles.

“Mental health is something that I used to be very ashamed of. I am diagnosed with CPTSD, which is chronic PTSD. Unfortunately, I did have some trauma in childhood and in college, and then as an adult through my marriage. And mental health was something that even though I had parents in the medical field, it was something we were nervous to talk about in 2006,” Oyler said.

Oyler said her mental health was put in the public eye when her “soon to be ex-husband” was arrested for domestic violence.

“It became the excuse. It became…the reason for a lot of things and I became the scapegoat. And unfortunately, I took a lot of that on my own," she said. "And I really believed for a long time that I was the cause of all this, and with so many people and different types of mental illness they take on this and think that it's all their fault, like why is this happening, and they must have done something bad.”

Oyler said she thought the things said about her after the incident on social media were the worst of it, but it wasn’t.

“It was honestly, you know, older women…not all, but some that I interact with and different men who would say, ‘How could you do that to your husband?’ It was never looked at as are you okay?...It was hard when people are saying, ‘Well, we don't know if she's lying or not.’ And that was one of the most difficult things.”

Oyler said she is lucky enough to have access to mental health resources and a support system, but that isn’t the case for everyone.

“I want to share this. I want to tell people…not to be afraid to talk about it, not to be afraid to ask for help,” she said. “I want to find a way to make an impact with us. And I want to find a way to make my voice heard and let people know that they're not alone.”

Regardless of who you are, everyone has feelings, said Oyler, noting that currently, she’s in one of the better places she ever has been, and is looking forward to helping others throughout this initiative.

“We definitely need more resources. We need a way to help those who have resources that don't know how to ask for help…but a lot of it I feel like as a society thing, and that's what we need to work to change the stigma for. We can do all these really great things and provide all these services, but if people are still too afraid to ask for help, then it's not doing anyone any good.”

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. You – together with donors across the NPR Network – create a more informed public. Fact by fact, story by story. Please take a moment to donate now and fund the local news our community needs. Your support truly makes a difference.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.