According to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 43.8 million adults in America experience mental illness in a given year. For many chronic sufferers, onset begins by the age of 14. Here in Loudoun County, mental illness and the resulting addictive behaviors and teen suicides has become an alarming, urgent and growing problem.
Despite the prevalence of mental illness, many sufferers feel uncomfortable discussing it and may fear seeking treatment because of stigma attached to it. The NAMI Northern Virginia chapter is working hard to change that through its peer-to-peer mental health education programs for youth and high-school aged children, as well as its Connection recovery support group and Ending the Silence presentations.
NAMI programs are designed to reach every resident of Loudoun who may be living with a mental health condition, according to NAMI Northern Virginia President & CEO Jeanne Comeau. The nonprofit received a 2016 grant from 100WomenStrong for a series of its 10-week-long peer-to-peer classes specifically for Loudoun County locations. The classes are led by presenters who are living with a mental health condition and/or have been through the experience of hospitalization. Attendees often are coming out of a hospitalization, and the sessions are a follow up to in-patient treatment. The 100WomenStrong grant also supported the training of additional leaders and expanding the program in Loudoun County.
“During the programs, our presenters share, ‘Here’s where I started. I was in a very dark place; maybe even in the hospital like you. I recognized my condition and got treatment, developed some coping strategies. Here are my successes, hopes and dreams,’” Comeau explained.
“For someone who lives with a mental health condition, it can be a hopeful and inspiring experience to hear from others. Honestly, many think, ‘I am never going to be able to do what I want to do,’ but they hear otherwise from our presenters.”
Comeau said that raising awareness is critical because so many have preconceived notions of what mental illness looks like.
“Our programs are designed to give people a window into someone’s life, to help normalize mental health conditions and help people feel more comfortable,” she explained. “We hope our participants come away realizing, ‘Oh, you can have live with a mental health condition and still be working or go to college.’ Wherever you are, you can move toward wellness.”
The power behind the NAMI programs is that people are sharing personal stories and there is an opportunity for the audience to ask questions afterward to feel like they understand that experience a little better.
“Peer-to-peer classes are very welcoming and feel like a safe space,” Comeau explained. “Participants call it a powerful experience, because during the 10-week session, they grow and bond with the group. People who were formerly very isolated and didn’t have a community at all suddenly have peer support, are learning real, tangible recovery skills, and have learned how to build a recovery plan /crisis plan.
“They then can build on their recovery,” she explained. “The grant is more powerful because when we identify new leaders, we train them and then they are able to reach another 20 people. This helps us reach more people in Loudoun County with education, ongoing engagement and support.”
Comeau also shared a testimony from a Peer-to-Peer leader who had experienced the program after a hospitalization.
“The leaders inspired me to believe again that it is possible to live a full and meaningful life while having a mental health diagnosis. I learned so much from the recovery process and found support from my peers, who also took the class.
“I became certified to lead group classes and have shared my story dozens of times, including at the high school I graduated from. My proudest moment was standing up and speaking at the same hospital where I was a victim inpatient. It’s hard to express what the experience meant for my own recovery and also to the patients who heard my story.”
NAMI Northern Virginia is a place where “individuals living with a mental health condition … and the Northern Virginia community find education, support and HOPE!”, Comeau says, adding that the 100WomenStrong grant helped them further these efforts and helped them to provide a “nice safety net” for Loudoun County residents.