NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, was formed in 1982 in New Hampshire after a woman named Peggy Straw lived with a daughter who experienced a mental illness. Prior to this, she had been working with support groups for several years in order to help families and care providers understand and cope with a situation with their loved ones.
Parents of children with mental illness often feel guilty. Many feel as though they’ve done something, took a wrong turn somewhere. Perhaps, if they had paid more attention, or worked fewer or longer hours, the mental illness could have been prevented. A sense of isolation and solitude also comes in: a mental illness is something no parent expects or prepares for. It most often can’t be detected in the womb, and may only develop several years into a child’s lifetime.
Previously, before NAMI was recognized as a federal 501(c)3 non-profit organization, mental illness was primarily treated with preventative measures. The Laconia State School for young people with developmental disabilities was still open. The DSM-II was the primary tool by which therapists acted professionally until the DSM-III came out in 1980. The DSM-II often uses the word “reaction,” which reflects Adolf Meyer’s approach to psychology. This approach placed a heavy emphasis on a person’s external stimulus as the primary factor causing mental dysfunction. Many of the breakthroughs in psychology we take for granted today had not yet been discovered.
NAMI stepped in to fill the gaps left by clinical psychology. The organization was so successful that it has since established a chapter in every state in the country. Today, despite the challenges presented by a global pandemic, the organization continues to offer peer support, albeit in a different form than it has in the past.
Ken Norton, the executive director of NAMI’s New Hampshire chapter, has been officially working with the organization since 2003 – though he has been helping out in various capacities long before that. He was brought on to help establish the Connect program, which focuses on suicide prevention. This program has also spread nationally since its inception.
Through the years, Norton has remained dedicated and steadfast to helping individuals support each other during times of difficulty. This occurs through the use of evidence-based practices across a wide variety of programs and services.
“Our mission is to improve the lives of all people impacted by mental illness or suicide,” Norton said.
Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, such programs and services were offered in person. Because the organization receives funding from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, as well as a variety of grants, NAMI has been able to offer most of their services for free. Low-income families or individuals have the same access to NAMI’s support groups as high-income people do. Moreover, the organization doesn’t seek out a specific demographic; everyone is welcome.
Currently, they are following Governor Sununu’s stay-at-home order, which has been extended to May 31. No plans are in place to bring in-person meetings back. For the present, all interpersonal interactions are online. NAMI’s office in Concord doesn’t even have regular staff in attendance; people stop by to check the mail, and little else.
What software is used, and how the meeting works, depends on what the participants and facilitators involved feel comfortable with. While Zoom is becoming the most user-friendly and popular platform, others are utilized in order to increase the personal comfort of those involved.
In fact, some people are reticent to show their faces to everyone in the group. Others are reticent to divulge personal information to people they can’t see. Consequently, a meet-and-greet session takes place at the beginning of every meeting in which every person can see one another; after this is over, those who want to turn off their video can do so. The personal comfort of those involved is paramount.
Providing support during a pandemic has been especially important. Mental health issues have increased while people become stir crazy. Some desire a return to how things used to be; the way things used to be done, if not ideal, was at least predictable. New patterns have caused disruptions which has become difficult to cope with.
In 2018, the CDC conducted a study which found that suicide rates from 1999 to 2016 in New Hampshire had risen by 48.3 percent. At the time, it was the tenth-most leading cause of the country. This Concord Monitor story centered around 15-year-old Triston Hannan, who took his own life in 2017, provides an eye-opening look into teen suicide and data the growing crisis in NH around mental health issues.
Since the onset of the pandemic, some have been concerned with economic hardship adding an additional series of stressors to an already beleaguered population. Without the ability to pay their bills, people begin to lose a sense of self-efficacy and personal control over their lives. When once they had the ability to set their own course, now they find themselves at the mercy of circumstances outside their control. A writer for the conservative National Review even suggested that suicide itself can “also be a contagion.”
However, those who are struggling should know that NAMI, as well as other mental health centers are still open for business. Support is still out there for those who need it.
“It’s okay to not feel okay,” Norton said. “It’s okay to ask for help. Social distancing shouldn’t result in social isolation.”
- NAMI’s Resource Line: 1-800-242-6264
- National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-TALK
- Veteran Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line: Text 741741 from anywhere in the US to text with a trained Crisis Counselor.
- Transgender Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860
- Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990
- The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
- LGBT Help Center: 1-888-843-4564
Winter Trabex is a freelance writer in Manchester and Community Contributor for Manchester Ink Link. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org