NAMI

Kappa Kappa Gamma members working on NAMI posters

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a volunteer-run organization that utilizes its resources and support groups to benefit both individuals dealing with mental health challenges and families and friends related to those living with mental illness. Known as the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization, NAMI began in the late 1970s and has grown to have multiple state and local affiliates across the country, including one in the New River Valley that has been up and running for four years now.

The two primary initiatives that NAMI has implemented locally and nationally include facilitating their two signature support groups: Family Support Groups, which is designed for family and friends of individuals with a mental illness, and Connections, a peer support group for people living with a mental health condition that offers support and strategies for coping and recovery. 

Kristine Reid, the NAMI New River Valley Affiliate board’s program leader, holds several responsibilities in her position, including being a point of contact, family support group facilitator, NAMI 101 presenter and the outreach coordinator, to name a few.

“Basically, it is a group that comes together and shares support and group wisdom from their own experiences, and so people find out they are not alone and they find out about what other people did to help their situation,” Reid said.

NAMI support groups are completely free and peer-led. Facilitators of the groups are not professionals, but volunteers with "lived experience” and training from NAMI. Specifically, the Connections group facilitators have either experienced or are living with a mental health condition themselves, while the Family Support Group facilitators have a family member who has a mental illness. The support groups are designed not to give out advice or act as therapy sessions, but to be an open space for people to share their experiences.

“We have given more than one family-to-family educational programs; they are twelve weeks long and they are free,” Reid said. “Everything in NAMI is free and provided with volunteers. We give this family-to-family program where people come and they learn about mental illness in an in-depth, very useful way, so people go out from that and have an education about mental illness, and so I think that has a definite impact.”

According to NAMI’s Mental Health by the Numbers statistics, among American young adults between the ages 18-25, 1 in every 3 experiences a mental illness, 1 in every 10 experiences a serious mental illness and 3.8 million individuals have had serious thoughts of suicide. Reid explained how NAMI differentiates a mental illness from a serious mental illness.

“That’s a classification like someone can have anxiety or an eating disorder and it may be temporary or it may have an environmental trigger,” Reid said. “But serious mental illness would land someone in the hospital, such as schizophrenia and bipolar.”

Along with support groups, NAMI utilizes a variety of initiatives and events to spread awareness of mental illness and break down the stigmatizations surrounding mental illness in the New River Valley. In the past few years, NAMI has sponsored movie showings free to the public at the Lyric Theatre highlighting a mental health issue or mental illness. 

Another annual event that NAMI holds is the national NAMIWalks, which, according to their website, is the largest mental health awareness initiative in the United States. NAMIWalks seeks to bring together people to celebrate mental illness recovery and honor those who have lost their lives due to mental illness. The proceeds made from NAMIWalks are used to support educational courses, workshops, advocacy initiatives and support groups. This year, the NAMIWalks event in Virginia will occur in Richmond, Virginia, on Saturday, Oct. 8.

NAMI has a variety of educational programs that have been implemented in the New River Valley. According to Reid, two weeks ago, NAMI sponsored a program called Say It Out Loud, where Montgomery School counselors came together to give adults and teachers the tools they need to hold conversations about mental health with teens.

Another educational program that NAMI holds quite often are NAMI 101 presentations, which provide information about mental health as well as NAMI’s objectives and programs. The presentations are available to any group on campus.

“We’ve done it for many groups,” Reid said. “We did it for the medical students at the (Edward) Via Osteopathic Medical College on campus… (We’ve) done rotary clubs and different groups, and the high school guidance counselors.”

Recently, Reid teamed up with Carmen Terlizzi, a sophomore majoring in geography and Philanthropy Chair of Virginia Tech’s chapter of the sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma (KKG), for a large volunteering event during their philanthropy week.

According to Terlizzi, as a national sorority, KKG recently changed their philanthropy to mental health and well-being, and Terlizzi had the opportunity to pick the organization that her sorority wanted to reach out to locally. After she came across NAMI and found that it met all of her criteria for choosing an organization, Terlizzi contacted Reid to see if there was any way for the sorority to support NAMI.

Terlizzi and Reid worked together and designed an event where volunteers, which included about 75% of the sorority’s chapter, went around campus and hung up posters with both general information about NAMI and contact information for the local chapter. Sorority members created and distributed around 100-125 posters with 20 business info cards with support group info attached to each poster and QR codes for NAMI.

“They are all over the place now,” Terlizzi said. “I see them a lot, which is really good in reducing the stigma (around mental illness).”

After KKG’s event, NAMI sent out a survey that asked individuals interested in NAMI about when they first heard about it. Out of 118 responses, 114 individuals heard about NAMI through KKG’s philanthropy event, while four had heard about it previously.

“I think, honestly, seeing the posters around campus makes a difference and I know when I see them, I always smile and look at the work,” Terlizzi said. “I just think it was a really good project for us to do because it signifies that you are not alone."

In the future, Terlizzi hopes that she can get more people in her sorority involved with events in collaboration with NAMI, such as the poster hanging event and the movie showings at the Lyric.

Reid noted that she believes the collaboration with KKG influenced multiple different layers of impact in regards to name recognition for NAMI.

“Someone may see the poster and they feel they are not alone … they might be encouraged to seek counseling or think about their situation in a different way,” Reid said. “Somebody might see the sign and might register then … and down the road, they might hear of NAMI again … and that name recognition will stick with them.”

“You send ripples out and you don’t know where it’s going to lead, but in conversation they might say, ‘Oh yeah, I heard of NAMI, yeah, do it,’” Reid said. ”People have come and gone but they have learned while they have been with us.”

Reid said that there are many ways individuals can get involved with NAMI such as just by joining the group and participating as volunteers for their initiatives and events. Volunteers can also join to become support group facilitators, though the facilitators themselves must have participated in a support group and be at a place in their recovery to be able to give back. Currently, NAMI has an ongoing need for outreach in counties further away from the Blacksburg area.

“We are looking to being able to expand and also, this has been a focus on the college community and the campus, but there are rural areas where people are at a great disadvantage,” Reid said. “They don’t have the access to mental health support and resources that we have. We want to try to find ways of helping those people that aren’t in our affluent neighborhoods here in Blacksburg.”

Since the New River Valley affiliate of NAMI is headquartered in Blacksburg, promotion and accessibility to others in remote counties has been a challenge. The recent increase of online outreach sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic influenced NAMI to move their in-person support groups online, which not only reaches people in more remote counties, but has also made people feel more comfortable attending these group meetings.

“With COVID, (NAMI) had Zoom links instead of in-person support groups and that raised their numbers a lot because you get those people in Floyd County and get those people in Giles County and they are able to go at the comfort of their own home as well,” Terlizzi said. “It’s the fact of going out and people might be nervous to go to the support group, but if it's at the comfort of their own home, then it might lead to more people to go.”

Reid expanded on how online options have made support group participants more comfortable with getting involved. 

“We have had people that have joined us and they decided they did not want to have their video on and they just want to listen and they would probably have been too self-conscious to attend in person,” Reid said. “But it does open up the area we can serve and it has been a silver lining of the pandemic for sure.”

Looking towards the future, Reid and Terlizzi have high hopes for what NAMI New River Valley has in store for both itself as well as conversations about mental health. 

Terlizzi hopes that NAMI’s promotion and influence will expand further than the bounds of Blacksburg and Virginia Tech and reach to the outer areas of the New River Valley.

“Blacksburg is bigger than you think,” Terlizzi said. “It extends out a little bit farther than just downtown Blacksburg and Virginia Tech; there are other places where we didn’t even put up posters, so I think there is a lot of expansion there. I’m also looking forward to hopefully getting one of my sisters (to take) over their social media and having a large presence over social media, because to get to those areas, a social media presence would be great.”

Reid’s biggest hope is to see a change in the system when it comes to treating those suffering with mental illness. 

“Mental illness has many victims, not just the person who has the mental illness,” Reid said. “Family members suffer and society suffers too in many ways as a result. Our jails are full of people who need mental health treatment and how harrowing it is for a family or for parents to find out that their mentally-ill child has been arrested … it’s a national tragedy, really.”

If you want to learn more information or want to get involved with NAMI New River Valley, you can visit their website at NAMIVirginia.org and contact them at 540-585-1627 or NAMInrvVA@gmail.com.

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