by Lorie Lewis Ham
May is Mental Health Month so KRL will be posting several mental health related articles this month. We are starting with an interview with the current board president of the Fresno affiliate of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), Mary Lou Brauti-Minkler.
KRL: What exactly is NAMI and what is its purpose?
Mary Lou: NAMI Fresno is an affiliate of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and their families affected by mental illness. Locally, our purpose is to improve the lives of those whose lives have been affected by mental illness by focusing our actions and decisions on providing:
S Support Providing Support groups for families and clients dealing with mental illness.
E Education Educating families, clients, friends and the public about mental illness.
A Advocacy Advocating for better laws, treatment, and services for the mentally ill.
R Recovery Supporting the concept of Recovery and Wellness for individuals living with mental illness.
S Stigma-Busting Working through education and advocacy to erase social Stigma and discrimination toward those living with a mental illness and their families.
KRL: When and how did an affiliate get started in Fresno?
Mary Lou: NAMI Fresno began in 1977 as a group of family members and professionals meeting in a small community venue in Fresno County to address mental health issues in the community. Few public services were offered at that time for persons suffering from mental illness, and these meetings focused on support groups and education about mental illness. The group was called the Family Alliance for the Mentally Ill (FAMI) and operated under the sponsorship of the Mental Health Association.
For over 12 years, FAMI operated on a shoestring budget of about $2000 a year coming from membership dues and donations. It was run by a core of about 15 people who provided support groups and information about mental illness for interested people. In 1992, FAMI filed Articles of Incorporation with the state of California to become a nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation and the designation as a 501 (c) 3.
Eventually, under the advice of Dr. Ben Jones, FAMI became a local affiliate of NAMI National. By becoming an affiliate of NAMI National, FAMI gained access to a growing library of materials, resources, and knowledge about mental illness to share with Fresno County.
KRL: How many people are involved in the affiliate?
Mary Lou: NAMI is a membership organization and we currently have approximately 125 member families and a governing board of 12. We have an office with two paid, part-time staff and several dozen volunteers who provide the majority of the activities.
KRL: What are some of the things you do?
Mary Lou: Most of the activities of NAMI Fresno are performed by our volunteers.
• We have a “warm line” for callers with mental health questions and concerns.
• We have trained volunteers who teach our 3 courses:
* Family-to-Family, a 12-week class for those who have an adult family member with mental illness;
* BASICS, a 6-week class for parents & caregivers of children with a mental illness;
* Peer-to-Peer, a 10-week class for clients living with a mental illness.
• NAMI Fresno provides support groups for both the families and for the clients.
• Volunteers provide community outreach, such as educational programs, speakers and informational tables at local resource & health fairs.
• NAMI Fresno’s In Our Own Voice (IOOV) provides trained speakers who share powerful stories of how their lives have been interrupted by mental illness, but now are role models for hope and living well with their illness. Over 80 presentations have been given to every type of group in Fresno and Madera counties.
• NAMI collaborates with the Department of Behavioral Health and others mental health organizations in planning for needed services and supports.
• NAMI volunteers hold an annual WALK and other fund-raising events to raise awareness about mental illness and to break social stigma around these no fault brain illnesses.
• NAMI Fresno provides the opportunity for many CSUF students each semester to be involved in service learning projects in our affiliate.
KRL: How can people get involved?
Mary Lou: People often get involved when they are dealing with a mental health crisis by coming to our monthly support group and our monthly educational program, which are open to the public, or by enrolling in one of our three courses. Currently, one of the easiest ways to get involved is by participating in our annual NAMI WALK with a thousand other people Walking for the Minds of America on Saturday, May 10 at Woodward Park.
Call the NAMI office at 559-224-2469 for information about any of the mentioned activities or programs.
KRL: Why do you feel NAMI is important to the community?
Mary Lou: NAMI is important to the community because it shines a light on mental illness, bringing it out of the shadows of stigma. It is the only organization that focuses on the families who struggle with a loved one by giving support and understanding and by providing education about the most severe & life-changing mental illnesses.
KRL: Future goals?
Mary Lou: NAMI has additional educational signature programs that NAMI Fresno would like to bring to our schools. Ending the Silence is a 50-minute presentation to middle school and high school health and science classes by a young person living with a mental illness and Parents & Teachers as Allies is a 2-hour presentation to school staff educating them about the signs and symptoms of mental illness.
Prime motivations for presenting these programs within the school system are that:
* nearly 50% of adults who have a mental illness had symptoms by the age of 14.
* the majority of individuals who develop bipolar disorder and schizophrenia do so in their teen years and 20’s.
* statistics show that half of young people who have untreated mental illness will drop-out of school .
The general public and especially teachers and families do not know the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, which are treatable brain illnesses. The majority of people go many years without diagnosis and treatment, delaying their path to wellness.
Trained volunteers will soon begin another NAMI Signature Program, Provider Education, a 5-week educational course for those who work in the field of mental health. This course educates about the experience of living with a mental illness from the client and family perspectives.
KRL: How/when/why did you personally get involved?
Mary Lou: I personally got involved about 17 ½ years ago when my oldest son had his first psychotic break. The family was suddenly thrown into turmoil by a totally unfamiliar illness and into a system that was fragmented and very difficult to navigate. We desperately needed support and education and are forever grateful to a friend who brought us to our first NAMI support group. There we found others who understood because of their own family experiences.
I became an active volunteer 10 years ago when I retired from my career in education in order to give back to the organization that truly pulled our family through and gave both our family and my son hope.
KRL: Please tell us more about the NAMI Walk.
Mary Lou: NAMI Fresno will hold our 10th annual Walk on Saturday, May 10 at Woodward Park, Group Activity Area. This is an event where more than a thousand people come together to walk in a show of support to those who live with mental illness in their families. It is an event that raises awareness about mental illnesses, which are brain illnesses and strives to break the stigma that still surrounds these misunderstood illnesses. Lack of information about these brain illnesses and Stigma are still the primary reasons that so many people do not get timely treatment, which delays the rebuilding of their lives. Walkers are encouraged to join a team or to create their own team of family members, friends, or coworkers. We currently have 47 teams that are registered on-line through www.namifresno.org. Our goal is to have 60 teams!!
The funds raised make it possible for NAMI to continue to bring and expand all the support and educational programs that we provide at no cost to anyone; everything we provide is FREE of charge to everyone.
As I mentioned above, please call the NAMI office at 559-224-2469 for more information on how you can get involved in this year’s Walk to raise awareness and break stigma.
KRL: Anything else I’d like to share?
Mary Lou: The final thought I’d like to leave people with is that mental illnesses are no-fault neurobiological brain disorders. The brain can malfunction just as do the heart, lungs, kidneys, and reproductive organs. Those who live with a mental illness have had their lives interrupted by these illnesses, but with early intervention and treatment, individuals can begin to re-stabilize, adjust to a “new normal”, and bring hope and wellness into their recovery.
NAMI Fresno is open to everyone and provides information, education, advocacy and caring support for families and their loved ones. We strive to raise awareness and to change old thinking and stereotypes about mental illness.
It is time for the sense of shame, isolation and stigma to be exchanged for timely and effective treatment, compassionate support and dignity for those who suffer.
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles and watch for more to come during Mental Health Month.