NAMI Wisconsin is the state affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which has 28 local affiliates across Wisconsin who serve their communities. The local NAMI affiliates offer support groups, resources, and classes to help people living with a mental illness, family, friends, and providers, whose goals are to improve the quality of life and care of those navigating the mental health system.
Each year millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental illness. During the month of May, NAMI Wisconsin joins the national movement to raise awareness about mental health right here in our Wisconsin communities. Each year the nonprofit fights stigma, provides support, educates the public, and advocates for policies that support people with mental illness and their families.
Even before many counseling and support groups moved to virtual models because of COVID, there had already been a shortage of mental health care workers -- making finding and receiving help more difficult and potentially expensive. Enter NAMI, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization providing advocacy, education, support, and public awareness, which also has a Wisconsin chapter and Dane County affiliate (highlighted in this 2019 nonprofit spotlight). All of the nonprofit’s peer support services and resources, including its HelpLine (call 1-800-950-6264 or email firstname.lastname@example.org) and Crisis Text Line (text NAMI to 741-741), are free.
Jake King, former Program and Outreach Coordinator for the Dane County affiliate, said that the staff shifted quickly at the beginning of the pandemic to make many of the educational programs and support groups available online. “A lot of family members and friends have never been in such close quarters with a loved one with mental illness, so there has been a big need and request for education and support,” he said. “If they need a mental health provider that is low-cost, has a sliding fee, or is free, we can have a private conversation to help connect them with resources and answer questions about insurance or legal issues.”
With more people working from home, Jake said he’s noticed some interesting trends: there may be a decrease in anxiety for people not having a commute, yet sometimes an increase when work and home boundaries get blurred and people don’t prioritize their self-care because of the stigma around mental illness. “Everyone struggles with a mental or emotional health issue in some capacity at some time in their life, and NAMI is a place for anyone who needs help,” he said.
Learn more, find your local chapter, become a member, or make a donation at www.nami.org.
Seeking help and ending the stigma around mental illness
Sharon Rapnicki, a Waunakee resident, NAMI Wisconsin speaker, and volunteer, understands how the stigma surrounding mental illness can derail someone’s career and turn their world upside down. At age 10, Sharon was in a traumatic fire and walked away with PTSD and depression, which reignited into a nervous breakdown later in life. Even though Sharon had been in management positions for 20 years, shame and fear kept her silent about her own mental illness in the workplace. She said she was reluctant to take medication and accept her diagnosis with clinical depression and bipolar disorder, and she would make up excuses for her hospitalizations and take leaves from work rather than disclose the real reason why to her company. Ultimately, an episode in 2010 left Sharon without her job, house, and even her dog.
“I was on this rollercoaster for many years of not looking out for warning signs and not using coping skills, and I was really neglectful with it,” said Sharon. “It took me about 4 years to get control over it, but I really worked with a therapist and NAMI support group to help me accept the illness and not have it be my identity.”
When Sharon decided to prioritize and take responsibility for her health, she reframed it as if she were managing a project. She created a routine that included eating right (limiting caffeine and sugar), exercising (getting outside for a walk in the sunlight), journaling and reading, taking emergency medications, limiting stress, calling her doctor early and often, looking for warning signs (such as becoming unorganized, having racing thoughts, or noticing changes in sleep patterns), and building her own “board of directors: my support system of family, friends, doctors, and support groups,” including working with a coach to change the mapping of the executive function of her brain so she can focus and sleep better. Sharon said getting involved with NAMI “changed the course of my life,” first through the Indiana chapter and now in Wisconsin and Dane County, where she also does presentations for churches, businesses, hospitals, and law enforcement.
Although NAMI does not directly employ therapists or psychiatrists, the nonprofit provides support, education, referrals, and other resources, as well as offers those who experience mental illness the opportunity to share their stories with the public. “By talking about my journey and how I’ve come full circle with my diagnoses, it helps me when people ask questions, because I know I’m helping them and it also helps me. I know I’ll live with this the rest of my life and need to be on top of it and make adjustments as I go along; I know it’s just like a physical illness such as diabetes or a heart issue though it’s in the brain,” Sharon said.
Sharon has not been hospitalized in over a decade, and she has been able to live successfully with her illness -- like starting to write a book, giving presentations at universities in addition to NAMI, and being a big proponent of NAMI Wisconsin’s revamped StigmaFree Workplace initiative. “The fire remains in me every day, but it’s just a smoldering fire now, and I’ll do everything to make sure it doesn’t ignite and put me in a situation that takes me backwards,” she said. “I try to live in the moment, and the structure in my life forces me to be more productive, which results in feeling better in myself and what I’m doing.”
Ways to get involved
Now in its 40th year as an organization, NAMI Wisconsin is proud to showcase the following activities, resources, and programs in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month to raise awareness and break down stigma surrounding mental illness in May and beyond.
Being Together: NAMI Wisconsin provides online support groups and classes for individuals across the state who do not have a local NAMI affiliate or do not have certain support groups or classes provided by their local affiliate. This is a way to bring those in need of support together, regardless of their location. These support groups and classes are open to anyone in need within Wisconsin. You can find a virtual support group here.
15th Annual Healing Art Show at Daisy Café and Cupcakery in Madison: The art show features works of Wisconsin artists who experience mental illness, highlighting the creative talents and personal strengths that far overshadow any mental illness. Artwork may be viewed during regular business hours in May, or online here.
NAMI Wisconsin Cookbooks: When someone is diagnosed with a physical illness, they are usually showered with support, messages of kindness, and food from friends and family. Unfortunately, that is not always the case when someone is diagnosed with a mental illness. Due to the success of the first casserole cookbook, a second edition has been published featuring “sharables” like desserts, snacks, and appetizers. All recipes have been submitted by NAMI Wisconsin members, and both cookbooks can be purchased here.
Mental Health Webinars: NAMI Wisconsin has been holding Wednesday webinars in May on a different mental health topic. Register to attend the next session at 12 p.m. May 26 (In Our Own Voice stories and Q/A with patients from Mendota Mental Health Institute) here.
StigmaFree Pledge and Initiative: NAMI Wisconsin recently revamped its stigma-free business awareness initiative by launching guides for how employers and employees can pledge to become a StigmaFree Company at namiwisconsin.org/stigmafree. One in five Americans lives with a mental health condition, and roughly 80% say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking support--often leading to decreased work performance and productivity. This program helps people learn the warning signs and understand the impact of someone struggling with mental illness through presentations, prevent stigma in the workplace, and identify further mental health resources and accommodations to support those in the organization.
NAMI Dane County is also holding its Virtual Spring Gala with a variety of musical guests and online auction on Thursday, May 27th from 7-8:30 p.m. Registration is open at namidanecounty.org/event-details. The online auction is up and running, so people can bid on items through May 30th at namidanecounty.org/silentauction. This is a great way to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, and all of the proceeds go to NAMI Dane County’s programs, which are provided at no cost to folks who need them.
And if you have a sweet tooth and find yourself near Monroe Street in Madison, 100% of Bloom Bake Shop’s sugar cookie sales for the month of May will go directly to NAMI Dane County.