When NAMI Mercer Helpline volunteer Louise Beste received a call and recognized the voice on the other end of the line, she was thrilled.
Beste knew the woman because their children were friends, and was glad that she had taken the initiative to seek out help. But Beste was quickly disappointed to have the call end soon after she acknowledged their relationship.
“I was so happy to talk to her…and she was so embarrassed, she didn’t want to talk to me,” Beste said.
Later, Beste met the woman’s daughter, a NAMI consumer, and mentioned her phone call with the girl’s mother.
“I told her the story, and she said ‘Yes, that’s my mother. She’s trying to hide anything and everything to do with this,’” Beste recalled.
That kind of sentiment is one that’s all too common in the mental health field. In fact, it’s the main reason NAMI Mercer was first formed as a nonprofit organization more than 30 years ago.
The mission of NAMI, which stands for National Alliance on Mental Illness, is to provide education and support for individuals and families affected by mental illness, and advocate for lives of quality and respect, without stigma or discrimination.
NAMI is organized at the national, state and county affiliate levels; NAMI Mercer is the largest county affiliate in New Jersey. All services at NAMI are free, including social and support groups, the helpline and advocacy programs.
As a result, the organization functions almost exclusively through its volunteers; last year, 260 active volunteers donated more than 11,000 hours of their time.
Christine Bakter, director of development, noted that NAMI Mercer only has “two and a half” paid employees.
“I’m the half,” she joked.
Bakter, who joined the NAMI staff almost two years ago, manages the NAMI Mercer Walk, the organization’s largest annual fundraising event, held every May.
This year scheduled for May 2 at ETS, the 5K Walk is free and open to anyone interested in participating. Bakter hoped to have about 75 teams signed up, with the goal of each raising $1,000, though there is no requirement for any team to raise a certain amount of money.
In addition to the actual walk, the event is also an opportunity for community members to familiarize themselves with NAMI and its mission. Part of that mission is allowing its consumers to feel safe and welcome to share their stories of their experiences with mental illness, whether they had been diagnosed themselves or watched family or friends suffer.
“In my role here as walk manager, I am encouraging people to share their stories,” Bakter said. “There is still resistance with some people. The difference we really see is younger people who are coming in are much more willing to either disclose or talk about it.”
NAMI first came into existence because of the stigma associated with brain-based illness, which kept people from sharing their experience and therefore kept them from getting treatment and recovering.
Though that stigma still exists, Bakter said she has noticed that attitudes about mental illness have started to change, especially in younger generations.
Bakter has witnessed this firsthand, not just through NAMI, but with her own family. She has two young sons, both on the autism spectrum.
“Even within the 10 years since they were diagnosed, I see a difference with peer tolerance of brain differences, that the older generation didn’t really have,” she said.
In fact, many of the volunteers at NAMI have their own personal connection to mental illness.
For volunteer Joan Brame, who is currently vice president of the board, that experience is one that she feels drives the volunteers and the organization.
“This particular board, many of the board members both past and present have a personal connection (to mental illness),” Brame said. “It just gives the whole thing a different flavor when people have all shared similar pain.”
Like many other volunteers, Brame first got involved with NAMI several years ago when she joined a support group due to family issues with mental health. Since then, she’s served with NAMI in many roles. She most recently held a Bingo Night fundraiser in April at her business, Empower Fitness in Lawrence, which raised $2,000.
Volunteer Madeline Monheit also found her way to NAMI because of a very personal experience. She moved to Lawrence in 2001, having recently suffered her fourth major bout with depression. She joined a local book club, of which a member turned out to be the then-president of NAMI. She invited Monheit to come with her to a NAMI event called In Our Own Voice, where a presenter in recovery from mental illness shares his or her story.
As Monheit listened to presenter Carol Kivler, a Lawrence resident who had suffered from depression for many years, Monheit heard her own story being repeated.
“I couldn’t stop the tears from falling,” Monheit said. “Here I felt that I was the only one in the world that had these horrible feelings, and I heard someone else explaining it, even using metaphors I had used myself.”
Ever since, Monheit has worked with NAMI; for the past six years, she’s been secretary of the board and chaired Harvest of Hope, an annual wellness conference held in October, which coincides with Mental Illness Awareness Week.
“What gives me satisfaction is reaching out to professionals in the community and having them all agree to donate their time (to the conference),” Monheit said. “It’s very heartwarming to know I can ask an artist, a teacher, a psychiatrist, a musician to participate…It’s also another way to spread the message about NAMI.”
NAMI Mercer celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 2014, and the organization is continuing to expand its services.
Launched in late 2013, one of the newer projects at NAMI Mercer is called Parents and Teachers as Allies, a free program offered to school districts to help teachers and administrators recognize potential signs of mental illness in students. A team consisting of an educational professional, an individual who has experienced mental illness, and a family member of someone who has experienced mental illness will share their stories with teachers and administrators to educate them about noticing signs and discussing concerns with families.
Beste, who previously spent 30 years as a teacher in Trenton, has already participated in several Parents and Teachers as Allies groups, and has found the schools to be welcoming and receptive to their information.
So far, the program has launched in Trenton, East Windsor, Hightstown and some Lawrence schools.
As volunteers of NAMI continue to spread the message, they know there are still many people who need to hear it, and there are still huge strides to be made in battling the stigma those with mental health issues face.
One of the biggest trends Bakter hopes to see moving forward is to discuss mental health issues in terms of mental wellness rather than mental illness.
“There’s a general trend to actually want to rebrand it from mental illness to mental wellness, because the idea is that mental illness is very stigmatizing—people kind of bristle at it…we are tending to talk more not just about the mental illness but the fact that wellness is possible, and building strategies and supporting people with the goal of recovering whenever possible,” she said.
For more information about NAMI Mercer and the NAMI Mercer Walk, go online to namimercer.org.