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Every year thousands of supporters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) come together in May (Mental Health Month) to walk in more than 99 cities throughout the United States.
The objective of the walk is to raise funds and awareness for various mental illnesses and to focus on the need for improved treatment facilities for those suffering.
Let’s take a look at who NAMI is, what NAMI does and how they came about as well as a closer look at the annual NAMI Walk.
Who Is NAMI?
NAMI stands for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. According to the organization, they are the United States “single largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.”
NAMI raises awareness of mental illness through education, support and advocacy. Both members and advocates of NAMI are dedicated to educating the nation about mental illness in order to provide a better understanding of the various disorders.
In addition to educating, NAMI is also devoted to providing changes in the health care system so that those suffering from mental illness can receive the treatment they need.
There are many other goals in making these changes including: combating the stigma that accompanies mental illness and honoring those who have lost their lives to mental illness.
The NAMI Board Of Directors
The NAMI organization is governed by a National Board of Directors. The members of this board are elected by members of NAMI. These key members are charged with guiding the mission of NAMI while also determining where NAMI stands on current matters affecting the mental health community. They are also involved in setting the budget and organizational development.
The current members of the National Board of Directors for NAMI can be found here.
As seats open up in the board of directors, current members of NAMI are nominated by NAMI state organizations as well as NAMI Affiliates. Individuals may not be elected to the board if they are not currently a member in good standing with NAMI.
Voting for the winning candidates is done at the annual NAMI convention held each summer. If unable to attend the convention, individuals can vote via absentee ballot by mail. Mailed ballots must be received by late June each year. Check the website for exact deadline and for the location of this year’s NAMI conference.
There are various bylaws of NAMI, but perhaps one of the most interesting is that 75% of the members of the Board of Directors for the organization must have or have at one time had a mental illness themselves or within their close family.
Individuals identifying with mental illness are asked to disclose their experience and this information is provided to voters along with election materials. This may seem like a strange practice in a world that is obsessed with privacy, but it ensures that those leading the way for NAMI truly understand the importance of NAMI’s mission.
History Of NAMI
The National Alliance on Mental Illness was founded in 1979, although at that time NAMI stood for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. The organization was later renamed in an effort to avoid stigmatizing those suffering from mental illness. NAMI is an American-based group that has grown to incorporate the majority of U.S. states and thousands of people.
When the organization first began however, it consisted of around only two hundred and eighty people. The majority of these people were family members of those suffering from mental illness and who were members of local support groups throughout the United States. These individuals came together to meet in Madison, Wisconsin to show their disapproval of how outdated and ineffective current treatments for mental illness were.
The development of NAMI took place over a long period of time in which volunteers donated their time and resources to create a people-centered organization to foster change and education on mental illness.
NAMI Founder Harriet Shetler
Harriet Shetler is considered by many to be the founder of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill; however, it took the efforts of many to create such a wide-reaching organization. The fact is that both Harriet Shetler and Beverly Young of Wisconsin came together to found NAMI. Both were mothers of children with severe mental illness who wanted to do something positive for their loved ones while comforting themselves with the knowledge that they were doing something to fight against the discrimination they and their children suffered.
The women organized a meeting of advocates for mental health in Madison, Wisconsin. This meeting resulted in the development of NAMI. Harriet Shetler remained fully involved with NAMI until her death on March 30, 2010. She was 92 years old.
The Four Cornerstones Of NAMI
Throughout its history, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has focused its efforts on four cornerstones: support, education, advocacy and research.
One of the main focuses of NAMI, which has remained in focus since the organization’s founding in 1979, is support. Support is provided for individuals suffering from mental illness in addition to support for the families, friends and support groups of those living with mental illness. Support comes in the form of both programs and services designed to help those living with mental illness in a variety of situations.
Some of the current support systems in place include:
- Missing persons support for those with mental illness
- An information help line for those newly diagnosed with a serious mental illness
- Help and support for veterans with mental illness
- Lawyer referrals for those with mental illness
- Child and student focused mental health services.
- Local support groups for family and friends of those who suffer from mental illness
Education is another important aspect of NAMI. The organization strives to educate those unfamiliar with or those who have misconceptions about mental illness in order to try to eliminate stigmas. Often time’s individuals throw around the label “crazy” rather than trying to understand the condition an individual is suffering from, it is NAMI’s hope that providing education to these people will eliminate this type of misguided behavior.
NAMI offers education to various groups including:
- Family members of the mentally ill
- Mental illness providers
- General public
NAMI plays a very active role in providing a voice for those fighting mental illness in a number of ways. Some of the forums that NAMI actively advocates in include: the Legislative Action Center, policy topics, news and alerts, mental health care, policy reports, state advocacy and public policy platform.
Just a few of the topics currently being addressed by NAMI in their advocacy efforts include:
- Giving those with mental illness access to prescription medications without restrictions
- Giving appropriate mental health care to children and adolescents
- Finding employment for those with mental illness,
- Creating affordable housing for those with mental illness
- Providing health care for the uninsured with mental illness
- Providing for veterans with mental illness
In most situations the term “research” relates to medical research but this is not the case for NAMI. When the term “research” is used by NAMI it refers to advocating researching into mental illness and medical research policy. A lot of time is spent by NAMI members in supporting and petitioning for federal funding of mental illness.
What Does NAMI Do?
The main focus of NAMI is to raise financial resources and awareness of mental illness by focusing their efforts on the four cornerstones previously mentioned. They go about this in numerous ways by utilizing chapters of their organization throughout the United States. Currently there is a chapter in every state.
Not only does NAMI rely upon the figure heads of their groups to raise mental illness awareness but they also rely upon members and the general public. One of the most recognized projects that the National Alliance for Mental Illness hosts each year is the NAMI walk.
What Is The NAMI Walk?
The NAMI walk is an organized walk that takes place each year in communities all over the United States in an effort to raise mental health awareness. Members of NAMI and volunteers seek sponsors to make donations to NAMI based upon their participation in the walk.
Each NAMI branch generally schedules one walk per year in order to raise funds. Some states have more than one branch of NAMI and hold more than one walk per year such as is the case in Arizona, California and a few other states.
The NAMI walk takes place on a designated day at a specific time, many in May for Mental Health Month. However, not every state chapter of NAMI has their walk on the same day.
Many walkers participate in honor of a loved one with a mental illness and others walk in the name of their company or simply to play a part in spreading the word. Not everyone who walks does so under sponsorship, many people simply walk to show their support for the National Alliance for Mental Illness.
The money that is raised by each chapter of NAMI during their walk goes directly toward providing free resources, support and programs through NAMI to people in need.
There is no fee to take part in the NAMI walk; walkers just need to fill in a registration form. Walkers are also given the option of a personalized walk website that they can use to raise money through online donations.
What Benefits Do People Get From The National Alliance For Mental Illness?
Some of the overall good works of the National Alliance for Mental Illness have already been covered; however, let’s take a look at it from a more personal level. How do individuals with mental illness or the families of those with mental illness benefit specifically from NAMI?
Crisis intervention is a type of treatment designed to address crisis situations for those with mental illness. This most often refers to emergency psychotherapy sessions created to address critical situations experienced by the mentally ill. An example of a crisis intervention service offered by NAMI is a telephone hotline designed to intervene for individuals experiencing suicidal feelings or thoughts. These services are free to use and are staffed by volunteers.
Mental Illness Education
Mental illness education is an important part of the services that NAMI offers, not only in terms of educating the general public but also in terms of educating the newly diagnosed. As with any illness, a diagnosis of mental illness can be frustrating and difficult to understand. NAMI is well equipped to provide information as well as resources applicable to a wide variety of mental illnesses.
Family Education Programs
In addition to personal education, NAMI offers a free twelve-week course for family members and caregivers of individuals with severe mental illness. This course helps families to understand the needs of their loved one and understand the progression and manifestation of the illness itself.
NAMI also offers a wellness program called Peer-to-Peer: NAMI’s Recovery Curriculum. This service is designed to help individuals with severe mental illness to reach a point of recovery and maintain their wellness.
Additionally, as such a significant organization, NAMI has access to a wide range of helpful resources designed to address just about every “what if” situation that could arise. Many parents of mentally ill children find this comforting particularly because of the difficulty presented in treating mental illness in children. Since NAMI has extensive experience with clients of all types there are many referrals and educational programs that can be offered for a variety of mental illnesses.
How Can You Get Involved?
In a society where everyone lives for the moment, time is a precious commodity. But, mental illness is something that should not be overlooked because of time constraints because NAMI makes it easier than ever to support mental illness education.
If you find yourself with limited time, why not find someone who is walking for your local chapter of NAMI and sponsor their walk? Why not make a donation to your local NAMI chapter? If you don’t have the finances to donate why not register to walk and replace your workout with a NAMI walk? Why not invite your significant other to walk with you and spend the time talking to each other or making new friends?
Getting involved with NAMI isn’t all about their walk though; there are many other ways to get involved with this charitable organization. One way that you can help is to simply become a member of NAMI by joining on their website for a membership fee of $35. This membership fee covers national, state and local membership.
Another method of becoming involved is to contact your state legislators to ensure that they are doing everything they can for those with mental illness in your state.
The biggest way that you can become involved in advocating for NAMI is to speak out. Speaking out against the stigma of mental illness can be difficult but it is important to set the record straight when possible. Educate yourself about the truth and devastation that mental illness can cause and make the effort to educate others and speak up when you hear discrimination taking place.
This type of proactive behavior can help to dispel myths about mental illness and help others to understand that certain negative behaviors are simply not acceptable.
Spread The Word
Once you have taken a stand and decided to become a member of NAMI, it is up to you to spread the word about NAMI’s efforts. Many times people are unaware that an organization like NAMI exists so spreading the word can be a very effective method of gaining more supporters for the cause and maybe even offering someone who is suffering a new resource for help and understanding.
You can easily spread the word by inviting friends to join you in a movement for the cause, asking for their support when you take part in a NAMI walk, gently correcting them when you hear them make a judgment on mental illness and even asking if they would like to volunteer for service with you. Try to always keep in mind however, that just because you choose NAMI to be your cause, does not mean that someone else feels the same way. If someone chooses not to accept your cause as their own accept that graciously and understand that there are any number of reasons for their feelings but stand strong in your commitment to NAMI and helping to further its mission toward great understanding and access for those who suffer with mental illness.
Other Ways To Get Involved With NAMI
If you are unable to take part in a local NAMI walk, it is also possible to make donations directly to NAMI. These donations can be made through their donation page, over the phone by calling 1-888-999-NAMI or by fax by calling 1-703-516-7223 or by traditional mail by sending donations to NAMI P.O. Box 62596 Baltimore, MD 21264-2596.
All of these methods of donation can be made in a variety of ways.
Memorial gifts allow donators to give a monetary gift with a personal remembrance to honor individuals that have been affected by mental illness or whose lives were touched by mental illness in some way.
Honorary gifts are gifts that are given to celebrate special occasions by donating in someone’s name. This type of gift is appropriate for any occasion including birthdays, weddings and graduation donations. Making an honorary gift is a great way to pay tribute to someone or to a special occasion in lieu of gifting more material possessions.
Memorial funds are a great way to pay tribute to a loved one who has recently passed. In lieu of flowers, many surviving family members request that contributions be made to a memorial fund. NAMI allows for the creation of these memorial funds by calling the NAMI Development Office at 1-888-999-NAMI and selecting option 3.
Planned giving refers to the process of planning a gift to be donated to NAMI via a living trust, a will, mutual funds, bonds, annuities and appreciated stocks.
A number of organizations provide employees with the opportunity to make donations directly to NAMI via payroll deductions or through matching gift programs that allow employees donations to be matched by their employer. This type of workplace giving is a great way to give back to the community on a regular basis.
NAMI also offers an online store and all purchases made through this store result in increased financial support for the NAMI organization. Items in the NAMI online store range from bumper stickers and educational brochures to t-shirts and gift certificates.
One of the best things about making an online purchase from the NAMI store is that not only does it support the NAMI organization but it also results in increased awareness about mental illness. Most, if not all, of the items sold in the NAMI store are branded with the NAMI name or carry a message of understanding about mental illness.
Other Ways To Support Mental Health Awareness
NAMI is not the only organization that allows donators and volunteers to raise mental health awareness, there are also a number of organizations that provide similar opportunities.
Mental Health America
Mental Health America or MHA has over a century of mental health advocacy under its belt and is the leading nonprofit in the United States dedicated to the promotion of mentally healthy living. Like NAMI, MHA is focused on advocating, educating and serving the mentally ill community. MHA does this by offering a range of self-help resources and professional services throughout communities.
MHA helps to provide housing, supported employment, access to mental health screenings and follow-up services to ensure that treatment plans are put in place. MHA has various branches located across the United States that provide access to their resources in each state. Advocates for mental health can donate to MHA through their website, join their ranks as an affiliate and help to create awareness and improved mental health resources in their community.
Like NAMI, MHA offers the opportunity for advocates to make donations in a variety of ways including memorial, honorary, membership and general donations.
Additionally, the Mental Health of America organization provides donors the opportunity to donate while making regular purchases through affiliate stores located on their website. These affiliate stores include eBay, Amazon, GiftBack.com and Gift Cards for a Cause.
Active Minds is something a little different when it comes to mental health awareness because it is focused on educating college students. The Active Minds campaign works to recruit college students to change the perception of mental illness on college campuses around the nation. Active Minds has chapters located in the northeast, south, mid-Atlantic and West of the United States.
Additionally, Active Minds has an international chapter manager to help to spread awareness of their campaign globally. The Active Minds campaign was grown out of a single college student’s experience of her brother’s suicide that resulted from depression and schizoaffective disorder. At the time of her brother’s suicide, founder, Alison Malmon realized that there were too few students talking about mental health issues even though mental health concerns were affecting many of them. It was at this point that Alison built the Active Minds Foundation.
Like NAMI and MHA, the Active Minds foundation encourages donation through general donations, monthly giving, memorial giving and honorary giving. Active Minds also encourages fundraising opportunities, corporate sponsorship opportunities, non cash gift donations and workplace giving. Similar to MHA, Active Minds also has a shop to support program.
Illness Specific Organizations
In addition to the more general mental illness awareness organizations nationwide, there are also a great many illness specific organizations. These organizations focus their efforts on specific mental illnesses in an attempt not only to find better treatment options but also to raise awareness about specific illnesses. Many people who have been directly affected by specific mental illnesses find that this type of giving or involvement is better suited to them.
If you are interested in an illness specific organization try contacting local support groups and hospitals to find out more on how you can help.
Why are you interested in NAMI? Share your story to help others.
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