Years ago, a doctor and I were having a conversation about mental illness when he shared a profound analogy I’ve never forgotten. Asking if I would take my children to an eye doctor if they had vision issues, I quickly replied yes, of course. He then inquired if I would take my children to visit a psychiatrist if they were having mental struggles. I debated silently to myself the cons of having a mental illness diagnosis attached to my child before I replied that, depending on the severity I would consider it. This doctor graciously pointed out how I was allowing the unwarranted stigma associated with mental illness to negatively affect a decision that should be just as immediate as seeking treatment for a physical ailment.

Whether from personal experiences, relationships or the news, it’s obvious mental illnesses can strike anyone at any time. Currently affecting around 450 million people worldwide, mental illness can disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. And yet as serious as this is, the stigma associated with mental illness often causes individuals to feel shame in seeking help. One organization has been offering mental illness support locally for 40 years and strives to no longer be the best kept secret in town.

This grassroots organization providing free or low-cost services to over 5,000 local individuals each year is NAMI New Orleans, the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI New Orleans offers support not only to people living with mental illness, but also to the families and caregivers of people living with mental illness. While they do provide high quality psychological services, what sets them apart from other mental health organizations are their peer supported or led programs. Programs for individuals living with mental illness range from a peer-run Drop-In Center Uptown, to weekly peer-led support groups called NAMI Connection, to their 10-week education course taught by trained members living in recovery, NAMI Peer-to-Peer.

“When I was able to realize that my family member was doing the best he could, I felt less angry and more accepting. I was able to see the person versus the illness,” said a participant in the NAMI Family-to-Family 12 week program, an education course taught by trained family members. There are also NAMI Family Support Groups led by family members offered monthly at three regional NAMI locations as well as their Family Guide: A Roadmap to Resources and Support available online or in print and Suicide Bereavement Counseling for adults who have lost a loved one to suicide.

Because individuals living with mental illness and their families often feel isolated and misunderstood, NAMI New Orleans works tirelessly on education and advocacy initiatives at the local, state and national levels to bring recognition to and awareness of these disorders. Their Mental Healthcare Navigation Team provides personalized assistance in navigating the complicated mental healthcare system by calling a NAMI New Orleans representative and their Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour training that teaches people how to identify, understand and respond to signs of a mental health problem or crisis. By helping our community understand mental illness is like any other medical condition, early intervention is key, and mental illness is treatable, NAMI New Orleans is empowering us all to look beyond the stigma and reach out for help.

A little more …

Change minds with a second line at the ninth annual “NAMIWalks” on Saturday, October 6, at Audubon Park.

To find more information or register for free, call 896-2345 or visit