Twenty years ago, there was little constructive collaboration among mental health providers, laws enforcement agencies and advocates. Some reasons for this include mistrust, misunderstanding and misbeliefs by all parties. Since then, starting in the mid-1990s, many local mental health coalitions around the country were formed to address mutual concerns.
Those collaborations, often led by NAMI, embraced the concept of community partnership. All parties were represented to address and improve circumstances faced by individuals and families coping with mental illness and inadequate systems, programs and funding. One example of a successful community partnership was establishing Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs for law enforcement to ensure effective and safe interactions, particularly in crisis situations. This took, and will continue to take, great effort by NAMI to get and keep these programs.
In 2003, advocates were greatly encouraged when the President’s New Freedom Commission reported that “mental health care is consumer and family driven.” Following this report, further encouragements continued around the nation. For example, the Florida Supreme Court supported family and individual involvement in the mental health system in 2007.
Through its programs of support, education and advocacy, NAMI is a primary source for advocates to get involved with improving the mental health system. NAMI has significant information and input to offer a community that is otherwise not available to its provider and law enforcement partners. NAMI offers value to family members and individuals living with a mental illness through its signature programs such as Family to Family and Peer to Peer.
Only NAMI provides the concentrated, personalized and unrestricted attention to those seeking help. NAMI becomes their ‘voice’ to speak for those who may have the experience and expertise to know what’s working, what’s not working and what’s needed. Unfortunately, NAMI is sometimes a missing “voice at the table,” such as at political town hall meeting panels, university forums on guns/violence/mental illness or governors’ committees about users of mental health services. Many remain unaware of NAMI and its advocacy work and sometimes, partners undervalue NAMI because many have not participated in NAMI programs nor experienced the full breadth of what NAMI does and the people it supports.
Support Group Power
People may ask what makes a NAMI member an expert on mental health? Why should they be included in these events? Just to name a few things:
- Years of attending support groups
- Hearing about thousands of mental health journeys
- Learning from or teaching NAMI evidence-based signature education programs
- Participating at local, state and national trainings
The value of support groups and education programs cannot be overstated. We see users of mental health and criminal justice services return to the community, engage NAMI and contribute to their community. Living with a mental health condition can sometimes feel isolating, but interacting with NAMI members can help people to feel less alone. Many individuals credit much of their successes, improvement and stabilization to NAMI. For many families, NAMI has given them back their loved one.
As a mostly volunteer force, NAMI is there 24/7 for individuals with a mental health condition and their families, not only at scheduled meetings, conferences and education programs but also on a one-on-one basis. Whether socializing over a cup of coffee or joining an advocacy visit to legislators, the NAMI community is a fundamental part of care, treatment and recovery.
Some mental health providers are also NAMI members and have the ability to offer professional expertise about medications, moods, temperament, etc. This collective knowledge is valuable when shared with the entire community to address current issues. Mental health professionals should realize that support of and involvement with NAMI and CIT programs provides individuals and their loved ones with services and treatment that differ from those delivered through a doctor’s visit or visiting case worker.
Most to Gain
NAMI must continue to emphasize and explain its message, knowledge, programs, experience and contributions on matters relating to mental health because NAMI members have the most to gain. If providers and police refer families and individuals to NAMI before they are in crisis, they can contribute to their recovery. Official efforts by government, providers and law enforcement to plan, fund and implement programs and services may impact the way mental illness is accepted and treated in the United States. Ensuring that needed and wanted services exist should be a mutual goal, and NAMI can be an influential voice at the table to make that happen.
Donald Turnbaugh has served with the U.S. Navy, Baltimore Police Department and U.S. Customs Service. He has 20 years of NAMI experience, including as a NAMI Family-to-Family teacher, NAMI Pinellas County President and Board member and NAMI Florida Board member. He has led community efforts for CIT, including serving on the CIT International Board. He and his wife, Judy, were honored as 2013 CIT International Advocates of the Year and 2014 NAMI National Outstanding Members.