NAMI: Mental Illness Education Helps Build a World Where Everyone Feels Supported
Updated: Feb 19
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness month and since this is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart, I wanted to share a wonderful resource that was introduced to me by one of my students last year. NAMI is The National Alliance on Mental Illness and was built on the premise to "provide advocacy, education, support and public awareness so that all individuals and families affected by mental illness can build better lives." We all have a role in this movement, and if I only knew about the signs of someone struggling with mental illness, I strongly believe I could have helped a lot more people, especially one person very close to me, whom I lost to suicide. It is encouraging to know there are people that work for a place like NAMI who have the strength and willingness to do this every day. I hope you read through my Q&A with Courtney Johnson, NAMI Chicago's Education Manager and see how this work takes courage to endure.
How do you support the efforts at NAMI Chicago?
I am part of our wonderful Training & Education Department. In this role I coordinate and facilitate our educational programming, which is mostly the content that focuses on youth and young adults. Our education programs reach about 10,000 elementary and high school students per year, and additionally, the adults in the lives of young people (teachers, organizational staff, families).
I have always had a strong interest in mental health and I completed my undergraduate degree in psychology where I was highly involved in research on eating disorders and suicidality with one laboratory and research on childhood development and attachment for another laboratory. After finishing my undergraduate degree I decided I wanted to work with people more directly so I switched gears and completed a graduate degree in social work. Prior to working at NAMI Chicago I worked as a therapist with primarily adolescents and young adults, providing individual, group, family, and expressive arts therapy.
Working directly with people can definitely be difficult at times. It is complex, and tough to not "bring work home". With that said, it is also incredibly fulfilling and hopeful. The tremendous strength, courage, and love that I have the privilege of seeing each and every day is moving and powerful - definitely a gift that I do not take lightly.
Can you describe briefly what NAMI is and what type of help is available to college students, and most specifically where they can feel comfortable in obtaining information or asking for guidance?
NAMI is an organization that exists to provide hope and improve the quality of life for anyone who's life is impacted by mental health. I would argue, that since every single person has mental health, the same way we all have physical health, that as an organization we exist to support every single person who may need or want our support.
We do this in a number of ways - through education, outreach, advocacy, and through our Helpline. I think it is most important for college students to know about our Helpline as a resource. The Helpline is free, confidential, and open 7 days a week to support people with their mental health. This could mean providing a listening ear, referrals (and following up to see if we can help make sure you connected - if you would like!), information about mental health, or even support for a caller who might be worried about someone else in their life. When you call the Helpline during the Helpline's hours, you get a live person on the other end of the phone (not a robot), and we are ready to listen and support with whatever someone may need for themselves or for someone they are worried about.
More information about the Helpline can be found here.
What is one way we as college faculty can incorporate this type of education into our classes, while making it inclusive and comfortable for everyone?
I think this is a great question! One thing that I would recommend is considering training for faculty and staff to ensure that they are aware of things like warning signs for mental health and comfortable with the idea of reaching out to a student they might be worried about. Another thing is simply having the conversation, and having it often.
Stigma is one of the most significant barriers to both conversations about mental health and to reaching out for help. By talking about mental health openly, frequently, and with the right language, we can make it a more comfortable conversation to have.
Could you give a little insight as to what types of support you give to college students right now who might feel that the uncertainty in the world is beyond their control?
I would say that our Helpline is a great resource for college students to find support. We can connect, provide resources, follow up, and we can even walk through things like grounding exercises with people directly on the Helpline. We can also assist students in connecting to longer term care, which can sometimes feel difficult to do alone as students frequently have only a limited amount of sessions with on campus resources. Our website also has a wealth of information about mental health that might be helpful for someone who is thinking about reaching out, but is not quite ready to do so yet.
What is your organization working on at the moment and what are your hopes and plans for the future? Has the current health pandemic shifted any perspective in how you are handling the work your team sets out to achieve?
This is a great question, and one that I am not sure I can do justice to in a short answer! We are working on advocacy efforts, expanding training opportunities, and of course making sure that our Helpline is prepared and ready to handle the influx of calls that have come in since the beginning of the pandemic. We are also taking steps to ensure that equity is at the foundation of our approach, addressing that barriers like access to care, resources, or feeling unsafe or unsupported have significant impacts on individuals and make it all the more difficult to feel well.
The pandemic has definitely shifted the perspective of our work and has required pretty rapid response and expansion. Our call volume pretty immediately spiked drastically, and resources became more difficult to track and stay up-to-date with, so we have been all hands on deck to ensure that we are continually growing and expanding (our knowledge and otherwise) to meet the needs of our community.
If you are interested in creating a NAMI campus group for your college campus, or any other type of mental health group, contact your local organization and the team will be happy to help set up support for students.