Those afflicted with mental illness find solace in NAMI
By Meghan Marville -- Daily correspondent
WINCHESTER -- When people come together over shared experiences, they not only find ways to cope with similar problems, but they very often make an impact on everyone around them. That's what happened when two mothers from Madison, Wisc., connected over lunch in 1977 and formed the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill two years later.
Now called the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI is a grassroots organization made up primarily of family members and individuals with mental health disorders, according to its website, www.nami.org.
Founders Harriet Shetler and Beverly Young bonded over their shared experience of each raising a schizophrenic son, and after meeting a couple times over lunch, they decided to form a group so others with similar issues could connect and learn from each other, too.
The Winchester group, which began in the 1980s, was a support group only for family members of mentally ill persons.
In 2007, NAMI of Winchester shifted its mission a bit to focus on providing support, education and advocacy for individuals, their families and others affected by mental illness, according to Connie Nutter, president of NAMI in Winchester.
NAMI of Winchester has expanded to Frederick, Clarke, Warren, Shenandoah and Page counties.
Through its Connections Recovery Support Group and monthly support group, NAMI has been able to offer support to family members of those suffering from mental illnesses. Nutter said she hopes to change the status quo of the mental health care system and services through community education.
This spring NAMI will host a free 10-week Peer-to-Peer Education Course beginning April 1 at the Valley Health Wellness Center on the Winchester Medical Center Campus.
The program will help individuals interested in enhancing their personal recovery and those who want to gain more insight into mental illness and coping skills.
Seats are limited, so preregistration is encouraged.
Renee Smith took the course in 2009, and now she leads classes.
"I found it extra helpful with my own mental illness and it has been a long road to recovery," she said. "I take medication, we all have slips, but I found a good support system through the class and have been able to avoid hospitalization."
Through the class, Smith learned tools to help herself whenever her support was unavailable.
In addition to all of its resources, NAMI has inspired others in the community to take action as well.
At Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, students are working on forming a NAMI club. They're waiting on final approval, but have already started bringing together interested people and hope to become official by the fall.
Any students can join, and meetings for the rest of this semester will be on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Jessica Edwards, club president at LFCC, wanted to form the group to help ease the stress that comes with dealing with a mental illness.
"I personally have been living with mental illness my entire life and found NAMI Winchester during one of the most difficult times in my life," Edwards wrote in an email.
"I thought that having NAMI at Lord Fairfax would be beneficial."
She credits Nutter and NAMI's Peer to Peer program with helping her through a tough period when she didn't feel comfortable talking openly about her illness. There's a stigma associated with mental illness, and NAMI helped her realize she isn't alone.
Club members are planning an "In Your Own Voice" presentation in the fall and hope to participate in the NAMI of Winchester Walk, intended for the fall. The walk-a-thon will promote awareness and raise money to support programs.
For Smith, being a part of NAMI made all the difference.
"I learned that I can do this," she said, "and I want to share that attitude with others. It made me feel like I matter, and I want everyone to feel that way."
For more information in regards to membership, support and education programs, visit nami.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 533-1832. Contact Renee Smith at email@example.com or 533-1832. Contact Jessica Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.