NAMI is an organization that my wife and I found out about thanks to my youngest daughter’s therapist.  NAMI is the acronym for The National Alliance on Mental Illness.  It was founded by Harriet Shetler and Beverly Young in 1979.  Their sons had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and over the years they had become tired of their children being blamed for their mental illness, as if being sick was somehow a lifestyle choice.

Unhappy with the lack of services available in their communities and with the sort of treatment those living with mental illness received there, the women looked around for others with similar concerns and decided to have a meeting to share their concerns. That first meeting turned out much larger than they had expected, and it wasn’t long before they created the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

NAMI’s mission today is a continuation of that initial desire.  It exists to “improve the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness” through support, education, awareness, advocacy and research.  The national NAMI organization is based out of Arlington, Virginia. It is organized further into state and local affiliates, all operating mainly with the work of thousands of volunteers. 

            This past year Mariel Hemingway, the actress, was the featured keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the organization here in southern California.  Given that her grandfather (the author Ernest Hemingway) and seven other relatives all committed suicide (including one of her sisters, the actress Margeaux Hemingway).

            There are NAMI organizations now in most cities around the United States.  We meet every other week with a group designed for those who take care of someone with a mental illness.  At the same time, there is a meeting for those who are suffering from a mental illness.  Our youngest daughter now attends those.  The first time we took her, she had a panic attack and didn’t want to stay for the meeting, but one of the leaders talked with her and told her to try coming back next time: “just come in and maybe stay for fifteen minutes,” she said. 

At the next meeting we tried taking her again and this time someone in the group had a puppy.  My daughter’s eyes lit up and she was happy to stay—and she now enthusiastically attends every meeting. She looks forward to her time there, as much as she looks forward to her weekly meetings with her therapist.

            Another thing that the organization offers are classes for those who have a mentally ill loved one: they are twelve weeks long, meeting once per week for about two and a half hours.  They offer large amounts of information on various mental illnesses and offer practical guidelines on how to interact with your mentally ill loved one: how to talk to them, things you can do and things you should not do, along with information about medications and treatments, and legal issues.

            One of the biggest comforts in the organization is to discover that you are not alone in your struggles, the feelings you have, and the difficulties you face.  We offered our church building as a place for the twelve week course to be staged and we publicized it with the members of our congregation.  It surprised me—despite being a deacon there for more than twenty years—to discover how many in our church have people in their families who are mentally ill, or who themselves suffer from a mental illness.

            Sadly, many of the people who we have gotten to know through our local NAMI chapter have children or loved ones who have been repeatedly incarcerated as a result of their mental illness: a large percentage of the prison population—mostly those who are there due to substance abuse and the related problems that come from it—are mentally ill.  Due to the way the law is currently set up, once a mentally ill person turns 18, parents lose all ability to help them unless they cooperate (thankfully our daughter, thus far, cooperates with us).  You cannot get information on their treatment or diagnosis; you cannot force them to take their medication, you cannot force them to get any sort of treatment at all, in fact.  Most of the homeless population is in fact made up of untreated mentally ill people that cannot be helped unless they choose to be helped—and most mentally ill people don’t recognize that they need aid and refuse to accept it.  A good movie illustrating this problem is The Soloist, based on the book by Steve Lopez, about a Julliard-trained musician, homeless and on the streets for decades, and Lopez’s attempts to help him.  The movie stars Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.

            Another movie that my wife and I saw recently that gives a mostly accurate picture of what bipolar disorder looks like is the romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook, with Bradly Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro.

            If you have a loved one who is mentally ill, you might want to check out NAMI; they have many resources that could help you.  Their website is www.nami.org or write them at National Alliance on Mental Illness, 3803 N. Fairfax Dr., Suite 100, Arlington, VA 22203 or call 703-524-7600.


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