All of us have days that are a little less colorful than others—a case of the blahs, a sense of being stuck in our lives, a rough time in relationships around us, the grind of routine. But for those with mental illness, that grind can turn into a spiral into darkness. A light at the end of that darkness is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. NAMI Whatcom has been working to remove the stigma of mental illness since 1984.
Volunteer-run, NAMI Whatcom is a large support network for those who are often isolated and stigmatized by mental illness. Board Chair Christine Morrow said, “We’re here to offer support and education to families, friends, and individuals who have received a diagnosis of mental illness.” NAMI offers diagnosis-specific courses and support groups taught by people who have experienced the illness. For example, the Family-to-Family group is led by someone who has a family member who struggles with mental illness. All the courses are free. “We believe that education helps to support the community and reduce stigma.”
The NAMI office volunteers are often members of the organization as well, and the office experience helps those re-entering the workplace, aids those who are learning to navigate the office environment, and serves as a model for families and for volunteers on how they want the world to embrace tolerance. “We model the acceptance and understanding we want to see. We aren’t here to judge them.” When the volunteers do enter the work force, they bring that modality with them, and influence the world in a positive way.
Another way NAMI Whatcom serves the community is through the courses they offer. There are courses in peerto-peer counseling and support, family members of those with mental illness, parents of children who have been diagnosed (or not yet diagnosed, as small children are not diagnosed until they are older), and BASICS, which is a six session program designed for parents and caregivers who have adolescents or children with mental illness. The support groups include a recovery support group, which supports and encourages people living with mental illness; the family support group for family members whose loved one is living with mental illness; and hearts and minds, which address physical health and its connection to mental health. There is also a suicide survivors support group that is not a Signature NAMI program, but is affiliated with NAMI. If there isn’t a group representing your needs, NAMI can find you one. NAMI does not handle emergency cases. “We’re a resource, not case managers.”
Currently, NAMI Whatcom is forming a student-led campus group at Western Washington University. “We’ve had an outpouring of interested students in the past two years,” Morrow said. This is the second NAMI campus chapter in the state. The participating college students will also go to high schools and middle schools to spread the word about campus programs that can help entering freshmen with mental illness.
NAMI Whatcom also held its first Stigma Stomp, a race and mental health fair, last year at Bloedel Donovan Park on Lake Whatcom. They had 350 participants, many of whom were families, volunteers, and members. The Stigma Stomp will be held again this year on Saturday, October 8th. October is Mental Health Awareness Month, which Congress created to honor the work of NAMI. All participants are welcome.