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NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) November 12, 2010

Posted by Crazy Mermaid in mental illness.

I saw an interesting bumper sticker this weekend. It said “You don’t see a Harley parked in front of a psychiatrist’s office”.  That pretty much sums up mental illness.  That Harley rider sneaks in the back door of the psychiatrist’s office, scared to death that someone might recognize him.  He’s there, all right, but doesn’t want anyone to know it. The only other place we see this type of behavior is in a shop selling sex toys.  Or National Enquirer.  Nobody claims to read it, yet it is a thriving publication. Go figure. Oh, and then there are NAMI members like me.

Unlike Breast Cancer with their irascible pink color, and Heart Disease with their “wearing red” campaign, Mental Illness doesn’t have the awareness in the public eye that those campaigns and others such as Multiple Sclerosis or other equivalent organizations.  Why is that?

Because of the shame and stigma associated with mental illness, some- or many- of us are hard-pressed to publicly identify ourselves as members of the “mentally ill” club. Take me, for example. At our last NAMI Convention in August, I purchased a NAMI bumper sticker.  It took me three months to work up the courage to put it on my bumper.

What’s NAMI? It is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It is an alliance of people touched by mental illness in some capacity.  Those with the illness, their family members, their loved ones, their neighbors and anyone they may come in contact with. In order to belong to NAMI you don’t have to publicly say you belong to NAMI.

Okay, so now you have the picture.  Let’s explore one of the side effects of not acknowledging membership in NAMI or even joining.

Started in the mid-1970’s by parents of schizophrenics, the organization has grown from its original intent to include all mental illnesses in its circle.  Yet I’m willing to bet that most of you readers have never heard of it.  Why is that?

Unlike any organization that I’m aware of, the people involved in NAMI face special challenges that other similar organizations don’t.  Those special challenges make it very difficult to finance and run the organization.

Imagine running Susan Komen’s Breast Cancer awareness organization, but without the help of either the person with breast cancer or her family.  Imagine her family being too afraid to acknowledge the disease, much less actively participate in the organization in some meaningful manner. People touched by mental illness don’t want to acknowledge that. Or they aren’t in a place that they can. Many members learn of NAMI when they’re in crisis mode, fortunately able to take advantage of the benefits of NAMI but unfortunately unable to participate in funding the organization.

All of NAMI’s services are free.  You don’t have to pay to be a member of NAMI or take advantage of their programs. But after the crisis blows over, the stigma of mental illness prohibits many people from belonging to NAMI or from publicly acknowledging their membership.

We do the best that we can with what we have.  And we don’t have much.  Having neither the broad experience of the business world (and access to money) nor (in a surprisingly few number of cases) the downright stability of mind, the volunteers do what they can with what they are presented.  But there is a big problem.  NAMI has very little money and very few people who are willing to not only fund the organization but to even acknowledge that they are or could be involved with it.

The grants NAMI receives prohibit, for the most part, use of those grant funds to perform the day-to-day operation of running the organization.  Try getting a volunteer with the right credentials to do that job for free.  As my dad says, you get what you pay for.  If you can’t pay anything, you don’t get much.  I am by no means disparaging the organization. However expecting volunteers who are experienced enough and patient enough to do the thankless job of continually trying to scratch the earth for funding is not reasonable. Yet with the lack of funding it is necessary.

Many NAMI members are mentally ill, surviving on $12,000 (or less) per year.  Therefore, NAMI membership is free to them.  It’s only $35 for the rest of us.  So getting a vast source of revenue via membership is closed to us.

When I talk about programs, I mean the “signature” programs such as the one I participate in, which is the “In Our Own Voice” program.  At no cost to the organization requesting the program, two mentally ill people come in and give a presentation on what it’s like to have a mental illness to whoever is willing to listen.

I have looked the homeless in the eye.  They are human, with the same rights as the rest of us, but their mental illness prevents them from exercising those rights.  Exposing the public to the face of homelessness is one of the side benefits provided- at no charge- by NAMI.  But running these programs costs.