Every month is officially the month of something-or-other (typically more than one such) that needs more public education and advocacy, and it’s all too easy to shrug off such campaigns as window-dressing. But there’s only so much that a not-for-profit organization, with a modest budget and powered mainly by volunteers, can accomplish in the course of a year. So, having a particular month designated as the focal point for public outreach efforts can be energizing and effective. It behooves us all as public citizens to pay attention. We might even learn something that will impact our own lives.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. You’ve heard it before; maybe you’ve even seen some of the blue-and-white ribbons hanging on trees and utility poles. But what does this really mean? To find out more, Hudson Valley One had a chat with Jo Ann N. Brown, program director for NAMI Mid-Hudson, the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which is headquartered in Poughkeepsie and has been serving Dutchess and Ulster Counties since 1981.
As this reporter discovered in her grantwriting days, NAMI is a priceless resource: a national clearinghouse for data about mental illnesses and their treatments, including well-documented demographics. This is where researchers go when they need to cite statistics on how many Americans are diagnosed with which mental illnesses at what age (more than one in five each year), and how variables such as sex, gender orientation, racial, cultural, regional, religious and socioeconomic factors impact their experience and outcomes.
Those economic factors are particularly telling. Unsurprisingly, this nation’s profit-driven healthcare system leaves many without the continuing care they need for a mental illness; many of the underserved turn to self-medication with alcohol and drugs to suppress their symptoms. So many of the mentally ill in America also manifest symptoms of addiction or substance use disorder that mental health professionals have specific terms for their plight: “dually diagnosed” or “co-occurring disorders.” Getting them help – getting the government and health insurance providers alike to treat mental illnesses with as much seriousness and urgency as, say, cancer or heart disease – is an ongoing battle that requires NAMI to invest a lot of its resources at the national level in legislative advocacy.
But NAMI also does a great deal of educating, providing evidence-based resources that are used to profound effect in the trenches by local affiliates such as NAMI Mid-Hudson. Its website, www.namimidhudson.org, is an absolute treasure trove of resources for anyone who suffers from a mental illness or has a loved one who does. And they’re all free, so it doesn’t matter what kind of health insurance coverage you’ve got. Jo Ann Brown emphasizes that all the regional affiliates work in tandem with the national organization and make their online resources available to anyone, regardless of where you live – especially since COVID-19 forced all sorts of not-for-profit agencies to figure out how to continue providing services virtually. If your local affiliate is too small to organize, say, an affinity group specifically for LGBTQ+ teens with substance abuse issues, chances are high that the NYC Metro chapter does, and you can join.
Like many who staff these regional affiliates, Brown came to NAMI first seeking information to support a loved one in crisis and later became a volunteer. Her younger son, Mark, was diagnosed with bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder after attempting suicide in 2010. With help from NAMI Mid-Hudson, Brown says, she and her husband “navigated the system and advocated for him.” She started off attending a support group, and then “took the family to a family class. It was so helpful that a couple of years later we decided to take it again.” Before long, she and her husband were running groups themselves. “I taught over 25 of these classes,” she says. “Once your loved one is doing better, you want to help others.”
With such support, Mark’s condition improved markedly at first. He was an amateur musician, actively enjoyed outdoor recreation and did volunteer work in his community. But sadly, although he was “working full-time, living on his own” and “fully in treatment,” the voices in his head persuaded him that it was necessary to take his own life in February 2020. “He had delusions. They truly don’t think they’re ill sometimes,” Brown says.
Though their family story does not have a happy ending, the Browns remain strong advocates for what Jo Ann calls “the NAMI effect: Everybody does better.” One major strength of the organization’s approach is that every support group and every class is run by “somebody living it,” whether a family member or a person with a mental illness diagnosis. Virtual support groups for Ulster County residents meet twice a month, and can be attended on a “drop-in” basis.
The classes are more formal and structured, lasting eight weeks and presented as “Peer-to-Peer” and “Family-to-Family.” You have to preregister, and there’s often a waiting list, says Brown. The curriculum includes plenty of practical information such as stress management techniques and how to communicate effectively with healthcare providers. There’s also a shorter “Basics” class available on demand to caregivers for children and youths with symptoms of mental illness.
Another crucial NAMI educational program, called Ending the Silence, is delivered to health and science classes at the high school level. It teaches students how to recognize early warning signs of mental illness or suicidal behavior in their peers, techniques for supportive listening and strategies for how to get them the help they need. The presenter is always a young person with direct experience of mental illness in their own life. All participating students receive a pocket-sized Resource Card listing contact information for local services for youth in crisis, according to Brown. With many teens experiencing unprecedented levels of psychological stress, anxiety and depression due to the isolation and disruption of the pandemic, demand for this program is high in local schools.
One good way to introduce oneself to what this organization has to offer is to sign up for NAMI In Our Own Voice, a one-hour interactive presentation that provides insight into what it’s like to live with a mental health condition. The next session will take place on Wednesday, May 25 at 6:30 p.m.; you can register for free at www.eventbrite.com/e/in-our-own-voice-may-25th-2022-tickets-328515016257.
Very appropriately, since eradicating social stigma associated with mental illness is part of NAMI In Our Own Voice’s mission, that date coincides with Mental Health Awareness Month activities. Also high on the agenda for May is the Mental Health Awareness Ribbon Campaign, in which volunteers mobilize to tie big, eyecatching bows on trees and utility poles in neighborhoods throughout Ulster and Dutchess. Each bow is inscribed with NAMI contact information and the slogan “Find Help. Find Hope.” The Campaign is designed to bring the topic of mental health in our communities to the forefront of people’s minds and to facilitate open and honest dialogue about it.
“Seeing the ribbons is a message of hope for so many in the community who have loved ones with a mental illness or are living with it themselves,” says Heather Ann Pitcher, who coordinated the local edition of the 2022 Ribbon Campaign. “It reminds them that they’re not forgotten.” After noting a falloff in participation during the pandemic, she decided, “This year we need to ramp it up.” As a result of NAMI Mid-Hudson’s efforts, the number of municipalities endorsing Mental Health Awareness Month and authorizing the hanging of ribbons jumped from five last year to 24 in 2022. Participating communities in Ulster include Rosendale, Marbletown, New Paltz, Woodstock and Highland.
The group’s goal was to get all the bows hung by May 1, and they will be taken down again by the first of June. While it’s now too late to get in on this year’s action (the NAMI website has links to YouTube videos demonstrating how to tie one of the bows and how to attach it properly), signing up to volunteer next year is one easy way to get involved with this worthy cause. To learn more, call NAMI Mid-Hudson at (845) 206-9892 or e-mail email@example.com.