Bipolar Disorder and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Last week, I discussed the value of depression and bipolar support groups and my involvement as a facilitator at a DBSA support group in Princeton, NJ. This time I talk about NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). But let me back up a bit.


    In the context of DBSA support groups, I alluded to the dangers of staying attached for too long. At a certain point, we need to stop over-identifying as people who live with bipolar and move on with our lives.

    In late 2006, I very suddenly found myself uprooted to a different coast. I had moved on.

    It was around this time that I also began to entertain the idea that I should just quit being a mental health journalist and find something completely different to do - roll pizza dough, try out for the Winter Olympics, anything. The thought alone was liberating. I didn’t have to switch careers, after all. I could continue to do what I did best and just be me.

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    Then, four months into 2009, NAMI San Diego asked me to join their board.

    I was fairly familiar with NAMI. I attended my first NAMI national convention in 2001, and had been to four NAMI national conventions since then, plus a couple of NAMI state conferences on different coasts. In addition, I had been a guest speaker at a number of local NAMIs in different time zones (including NAMI San Diego).

    But unlike DBSA, I had never been involved with NAMI on the coal face, person-to-person, nor did I wish to be. Board involvement, however, was different. NAMI San Diego is one of the largest and most active local NAMIs among some 1000 NAMIs nationwide, with an impressive complement of paid staff and volunteers, a wide range of free programs, a sizable budget, and wide-ranging partnerships in the community.

    NAMI San Diego was one of the first of the NAMIs from the late 1970s, back when parents of those with schizophrenia found each other and began meeting over kitchen tables. Back in those days, psychiatry blamed schizophrenia on bad parenting and labeled the alleged perpetrators as “schizophrenogenic.” The reasoning was as stupid as the name.

    This first generation of NAMI heroes fought back, wouldn’t take no for an answer, and became a force to be reckoned with. As NAMI grew, it expanded its focus to include “consumers” (I hate this word) and their needs. Nevertheless, the emphasis is still on families.

    Attend a NAMI national convention and you will encounter mostly family members. As a mental health journalist, I benefitted enormously by listening to their stories. It also helped me as a human being to empathize with their situations. In addition, I got exposed to a wider range of illnesses than depression and bipolar.

    NAMI's outreach to “consumers” has not always been a smooth one. A lot of local NAMIs still see themselves as family member organizations, and the national NAMI convention I attended last month in Chicago gave me the impression that consumers were still quite a bit less equal than family members.

    Nevertheless, NAMI has a strong track record in being enormously helpful to consumers, including probably the best free program anywhere, Peer-to-Peer. Peer-to-Peer is a nine-week course, involving a two-hour session each week run by two trained “mentors.” The course is modeled on the highly successful Family-to-Family.

  • Unlike a support group, Peer-to-Peer is recovery-oriented. Those who attend learn practical tools for managing their illness, such as mindfulness.

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    Family-to-Family and Peer-to-Peer are the heart of NAMI, along with In Our Own Voice (which raises awareness about living with mental illness). Plus, there are support groups and other programs too numerous to mention. In addition, NAMI is often the point of first contact for desperate family members and consumers at a loss how to get plugged into mental health services.

    At the local level, there is wide latitude for various NAMIs to get innovative and serve their respective constituencies. NAMI San Diego, for instance, has a strong outreach into the Latino community, is making inroads into the various Asian communities, and has come up with a highly innovative "Friends in the Lobby," program.

    NAMI San Diego is an organization of “doers.” As a board member, I view my job as “helping the doers do.” Back at DBSA, I was a “doer,” and as a doer I learned the value of organizational support. One of my frustrations with DBSA back east was my failure to establish a strong state organization to “help the people helping the people.”

    Organizational strength translates to reaching a lot more people. Thus, these days you will find me seated at a table or on a conference call perusing financial statements and bylaws, working on things like strategic plans, and helping plan our two major events of the year - our Walk and our Dinner.

    With organizational strength comes credibility, with credibility comes access to money. Last year, for instance, we secured a grant for a mental health helpline, staffed by trained and salaried individuals. We are now serving a lot more people a lot better than we used to.

    This year, NAMI national honored NAMI San Diego as the outstanding local affiliate. The credit goes to highly dedicated staff and volunteers and partners in the community over the years and decades. I’m very proud to be a small part of that.


    NAMI website

Published On: August 07, 2011