No recipes or dining tips for you this week, dear readers. This week I am addressing a much more demanding, timely topic: mental illness.

A Mental Health Break
Jyl’s mother

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. With two mass shootings in less than two weeks, the most recent one perpetuated against second and third grade children, as a nation we are long overdue to deal with the rising incidence of mental illness in this country. Speaking of overdue, I realize, this being May 26, that I am late in getting around to addressing Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental illness is a tough subject for me.

Mental illness dominated and destroyed my childhood. My mother suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia, and she was consumed by delusions and hallucinations that were threatening, demeaning, and drove her to violent actions I assume she would not have committed had she not been so sick. She was convinced that the government and “others” were surveilling her, so we didn’t have a telephone and the mail was approached with irregularity and suspicion, so bills went unpaid, and utilities were regularly cut off. Firefighters and the police were frequent visitors to our otherwise quiet Old Metairie neighborhood, often to address the roaring backyard trashcan infernos within which my mother would burn things to which she attached nonsensical menacing meaning. Favorite toys and sentimental keepsakes were regular targets.

When my mother’s illness dictated to her that my beloved dog, my closest companion, was somehow complicit in the plot against her she took my dog away and I never saw her again. I was left to imagine the horrors that may have befallen her in a manner that only a terrorized 10-year-old could. I still cannot talk about this.

My mother was largely nocturnal, roaring openly and violently at demons only she could see and hear by night, then recharging by becoming comatose by day when other mothers were doing the laundry, preparing meals, and ushering their children to school. Though the neighbors pointed and whispered, I was never to speak of the goings on in my family “home.” All of this was a “secret” and to speak of it would be a betrayal of “family loyalty.” As is common with schizophrenics, part of my mother’s disorder was anosognosia, the lack of insight and an unawareness of her disorder. She could not recognize that her behavior, hallucinations, or delusions were unusual or unfounded. As a result, she refused therapy and medication, unless ordered by the Court (which happened from time to time, offering brief respite) so she lived in a constant state of active psychosis, and I lived in a constant state of insecurity, shame, fear, and anxiety. This was the mid-1970’s and resources for those suffering from mental illness and their tortured families were largely nonexistent. I assumed I was the only child on earth living in this kind of Hell. My mother died when I was 18, leaving me with a permanently faulty fight or flight response. I am grateful to have avoided inheriting my mother’s devastating illness but the residual scars from a childhood lost to another’s madness will never heal.

Each year, millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental illness, either their own or that of a loved one. Founded in 1978, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) New Orleans fights stigma, provides support, educates the public, and advocates for policies that support people with mental illness and their families – through family support, education and advocacy, and quality psychosocial services. NAMI’s programs are based on the belief that people with mental illness can help each other. The organization provides free support groups, classes and trainings, and community presentations to enable individuals and their families to improve their lives. Nearly every aspect of the education program is facilitated by people with mental illness for people with mental illness, or by their loved ones/caregivers.

I wish NAMI had been there when I was a child, but this crucial resource is, blessedly, there now, and it can make a difference in the lives of so many who suffer in ways that only other members of this Brethren of Misery can understand.

“Together, we can realize our shared vision of a nation where anyone affected by mental illness can get the appropriate support and quality of care to live healthy, fulfilling lives,” said Liz Yeager, development director for NAMI New Orleans.

Each year, NAMI New Orleans serves approximately 5,000 people in the Greater New Orleans area (Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard parishes).

For people afflicted with mental illness NAMI provides a peer-ledConnection Recovery Support Group as well as a10-week peer to peer led course taught by trained mentors living in recovery who encourage growth, healing, and recovery.

For the loved ones and caregivers of mentally ill people NAMI provides family support groups, The Family Guide: A Roadmap to Resources and Support, and NAMI Family-to-Family, an8-week class taught by trained family member facilitators to provide better understanding, a sense of community, coping skills, and insight into how to best advocate for their afflicted loved ones.

Community Education and Awareness are provided throughMental Health First Aid, an 8-hour training that teaches participants how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of a mental health issue or crisis. There is also a Mental Health Navigation Team (MHNT) that provides personalized assistance in obtaining needed resources within the mental health care system.

Lastly, NAMI provides desperately needed behavioral health services through

Community Psychiatric Support and Treatment (CPST) – case management services; Psychosocial Rehabilitation Skills Training (PSR) is offered through a drop-in club house where participants learn daily living, coping, and socialization skills. NAMI provides case management and assistance with housing through its Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) program as well as counselling services and guidance. The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) works with the8th district NOPD whereby law enforcement arrests and sends referrals to NAMI for case management. In Jefferson Parish, NAMI offers case management through Hospital Coordination Transition (HCT) following hospitalization, so those suffering from mental illness can better adjust and return hospital visits will be minimized. revisits.

NAMI suggests the following to raise awareness, combat stigma, advocate, and celebrate the lives of people living with mental illness.

 ¨ Share information and resources on social media. Find graphics, messages, and more at nami.org/whycare. Follow NAMI New Orleans – @namineworleans for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

¨ Donate to NAMI New Orleans to honor or in memory of someone. www.namineworleans.org/donate

¨ Advocate- Reach out to your representatives at the State Capitol and share your story to support mental health legislation.

¨ Train! Sign up for NAMI New Orleans’ next Adult Mental Health First Aid training – namineworleans.org/mhfa for next session. You can also call 504. 896.2345 or email education@namineworleans.org.

Please do what you can to help those suffering from mental illness and the loved ones who are suffering with them. Early and rigorous intervention could lead to a lessening of the increasing incidents of trauma and violence we are witnessing as a society while saving lives in the process.