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Registration Open for the NAMI Illinois 2020 Virtual State Conference

sarahbb : September 15, 2020 8:18 pm : Blog

Registration is open for NAMI Illinois’ 2020 State Conference, which will be taking place online this year on Friday, October 16th and Saturday, October 17th.

Conference Overview

This year’s theme is Driving Change: The New Future of Mental Health. Its focus centers on the dramatic increase in the need for services due to COVID-19 for:

  • Many who are experiencing the challenges of anxiety and depression for the first time.
  • Those living with mental health conditions who are struggling to cope with circumstances that intensify their challenges.

Because of the virtual setup, sessions have been shortened to one hour each. Ticket prices have also been reduced to $50 per person, and $10 for individuals living with a mental health condition. CEUs will be awarded for the conference.

Networking will still have its place throughout the conference. Zoom rooms will be set up based upon specific topics of interest, and there will still be sponsors and exhibitors whom you can “visit” throughout the event. Individuals and groups will also have the opportunity to create virtual meetups to connect.

Session Highlights

The conference will include 54 speakers offering two keynote sessions plus 25 different presentations. As always, the sessions have been designed with NAMI’s broad range of constituents in mind:

  • Individuals living with a mental health condition
  • Family members and caregivers
  • Mental health professionals
  • Advocates
  • NAMI Affiliate employees and volunteers

NAMI CEO Daniel H. Gillison, Jr. will join the conference as Friday’s keynote speaker, addressing the impact of both COVID-19 and racial inequity on mental health, and how our communities can move forward.

On Saturday, David Albert, Ph.D., Director for the Division of Mental Health at the Illinois Department of Human Services, will address the needs and opportunities presented by COVID and how this impacts mental health systems throughout Illinois, now and in the future.

Other presentations of interest include:

  • Suicide prevention training, with certification available
  • Legalized marijuana in Illinois, one year later
  • Mini workshops to build mental wellness and coping skills
  • Diversity and equity in the mental health workforce
  • Mental health in Latino communities
  • Barriers and challenges in rural mental health care
  • Funding and access to mental health care in Illinois
  • Pivoting from in-person to virtual services

The full agenda for the conference will be available the week of September 21 on NAMI Illinois’ website,

Register online today.

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Keynote Spotlight: Dan Gillison, Jr. and David Albert, Ph.D.

sarahbb : September 15, 2020 8:13 pm : Blog

NAMI Illinois is honored to have two esteemed keynote speakers at this year’s Virtual State Conference.

NAMI CEO Dan Gillison, Jr. and David Albert, Ph.D., Director of the Division of Mental Health at the Illinois Department of Human Services, will both address the impact of what is happening in 2020 on the current mental health landscape within NAMI and for residents across the state of Illinois, and how we can move forward from here.

With no easy resolution in view for either COVID or systemic racism and its traumatic impact, continuing to build and expand new frameworks for mental health support is paramount. During the October 16th keynote session, Mr. Gillison will brief attendees with a “state of the union” for NAMI at a national level, filtering down through state chapters and local affiliates. After staff and volunteers rapidly pivoted in-person service offerings to virtual settings in the spring, the focus now turns to expanding accessibility while continuing to engage with community members to understand their needs in the times ahead.

On October 17th, Mr. Albert will turn our focus statewide. He will address how the Division of Mental Health is working to support communities and individuals in Illinois who may not have a mental illness diagnosis, but who are struggling emotionally as a result of the pandemic, community violence, and systemic racism and poverty. With state budgetary resources strained amidst pandemic relief efforts, Mr. Albert will present a vision for how the Division of Mental Health is evolving to address current and future needs to equitably address the mental healthcare needs of every resident in Illinois.

We recognize these are difficult times for many Illinoisans. We hope you will join us to discuss these critical topics.

Looking for support and educational resources for people of color? NAMI has compiled a list of resources and organizations that can help. You are not alone.

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Interview with Fermina Ponce

sarahbb : September 15, 2020 8:05 pm : Blog

Fermina Ponce is an award-winning author from Colombia who uses her writing talent to help others heal from the trauma of mental illness. A member of NAMI Kane-South, DeKalb and Kendall Counties, she will soon be training to be Connection Recovery Support Group facilitator and will be a presenter at the NAMI IL 2020 State Conference.


1. Please tell us a little bit about the presentation you will be making at the NAMI Illinois 2020 Virtual State Conference.

During the Creative Transformation session, I will be talking about Let’s Talk/Conversemos, an expressive writing workshop I offer, the purpose of which is to encourage attendees to explore their emotions through writing. I strongly believe that writing heals and it can be any kind of writing.

2. You are going to let participants do a piece of the workshop you offer. What will they actually be doing?

They will be experiencing a small portion of the workshop called “Three Words.” Participants will construct a text of any kind following my instructions. The important part of this text is the connection that it has with their feelings, thoughts, emotions and healing needs.

3. How has your history with mental illness influenced the work you do, for example, with your writing or workshops?

It has completely influenced my desire to help. Having bipolar II has pushed me to be brave and vulnerable at the same time, in order to give back to the Hispanic community. Due to our upbringing, culture and so on, there is a lot of stigma and taboo. I want to contribute through Let’s Talk/Conversemos to face the stigma and to overcome taboo.

4. Please tell us a bit about what you have done or are planning to do at NAMI KDK.

I have been facilitating the Let’s Talk/ Conversemos workshops twice a month, the second Tuesday of the month in English and the second Thursday in Spanish. Once I complete the Connection training and we can offer groups in Spanish, I think I will be all set with my contribution to the Hispanic community.


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Suicide Prevention: Know the Signs, Make a Difference

sarahbb : August 19, 2020 12:28 pm : Blog

National Suicide Prevention Week is coming up, beginning Sunday, September 6th. This comes at a particularly crucial time as ongoing social distancing has increased the dangers of isolation for a large number of community members. Accordingly, building awareness about risk signs for suicide and providing education about resources available is more important than ever.

Nationwide, suicide has been a growing concern for some time. The CDC notes that suicide rates have increased by 30% since 1999. Of those deaths, 46% have a known mental condition.

Risk factors

A number of risk factors can contribute to the likelihood of a suicide attempt, including:

  • A family history of suicide or previous suicide attempts
  • Substance abuse
  • Access to firearms
  • Chronic mental illness or a serious physical health condition
  • A history of trauma or abuse
  • Prolonged stress
  • A recent tragedy or loss

Groups at higher risk

Research shows that suicide rates are particularly high within certain demographic groups.

1. Youth and teens: Suicide is the second most common cause of death among youth ages 10-24. Three underlying causes within this group are:

  • Cyberbullying or bullying
  • Sexual orientation
  • Local epidemics of suicides or “suicide clusters”

With the loss of structure and routine provided by many school and sports activities, cultivating good mental health in children and adolescents is particularly important.

2. Middle-aged men: Suicide is also the #2 cause of death in men under age 44, but male stereotypes deter many from seeking treatment. Additionally, warning signs are often overlooked as part of day-to-day stress, since depression in men often presents itself as irritability, difficulty sleeping, or loss of interest in typical activities.

With many currently out of jobs or working remotely for the foreseeable future, stress levels are higher than ever.

3. First responders: High levels of on-the-job stress paired with the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are top areas of concern for this demographic. Additionally, concern over risking one’s standing at work has created a troubling trend with first responders. More law enforcement officers and fire fighters die by suicide than in the line of duty, a number that continues to rise.

4. Veterans: Like first responders, the Veteran population is heavily impacted by PTSD. Additionally, as weapons used in military conflicts have become more sophisticated, we have seen an increase in traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Many TBIs have a lifelong impact on physical function, behavior and personality and overall mental health. The suicide rate for Veterans is 1.5 times higher than for non-Veteran adults over 18.

Warning signs

The good news is that we can educate ourselves to prevent the loss of life. There are a number of common warning signs for suicide to look for:

  • Increased drug and alcohol use
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and community
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Impulsive or reckless behavior
  • Talking about suicide, particularly if they have a plan
  • Giving away important possessions
  • Changes in sleep patterns

Keeping in regular contact with loved ones at high risk through phone calls, video and texts can help you determine if they enter a period of distress.

Bring in support

If you are concerned, ask your loved one if they are thinking about suicide. Being direct shows that you are open to a conversation. Focus on listening and empathizing; don’t minimize their thoughts or attempt to provide a quick solution. During the conversation, try to determine if they have a plan established, which would indicate a more imminent risk. It is a myth that asking someone if they are considering suicide will actually give them the idea to do so.

Your ability to be calm is important. Try not to raise your voice, move slowly and be patient. Reassure them that there are resources available, and that you want to help them connect with those services. This can involve contacting a suicide prevention line (1-800-273-8255) searching for local resources, or offering to call their insurance company. If you can, remove dangerous items such as guns, knives, or pills. NAMI has put together a resource guide for navigating a mental health crisis that can be useful.

If you suspect someone is in danger, do not hesitate to contact 911. And remember, you are not alone. NAMI has resources for loved ones and caregivers as well.

To help reduce stigma and promote education during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, learn more here.

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Miriam Smith: Suicide Attempt Survivor

sarahbb : August 19, 2020 12:21 pm : Blog

Miriam Smith is currently a class facilitator for NAMI De Familia a Familia, a NAMI support group facilitator, NAMI In Your Own Voice presenter, NAMI Connections facilitator and also a board member of NAMI Lake County. She also is the Volunteer Coordinator for the Lake County Suicide Prevention Task Force, a presenter for CIT (Crisis Intervention Training), a member of the local health department, Governing Council and a member of the Trauma-Informed Work Group.

Was there an event that caused you to decide to attempt suicide?

The series of events that caused me to attempt suicide began on January 26th, 2011 at 2:10 pm when my father died from Alzheimer’s and, on that same day, my sister was having surgery for stage 3 cancer. Two days later, January 28th, 2011 at 2:17 pm, my mother passed away. Nothing prepares you for the death of a parent. Losing both at the same time was beyond any pain I can explain.

I had been in the corporate world for 25+ years, attended a top tier school, lived in a beautiful high-rise in a wonderful neighborhood. My anxiety level continued to escalate and depression set in, which made me lose my self-confidence, hope and faith. I felt I had not lived up to my parent’s expectations; I let myself down, but most importantly, I had let my family, friends, and loved ones down. I began my suicide ideation, convincing myself that I was worthless, useless and a burden to my family. I began to spiral down, isolating, not sleeping and/or sleeping too much (my schedule was completely off).

I felt like a ghost, I did not have energy, motivation, joy, faith, hope. I was sure no one loved me anymore and that I certainly did not love myself.

Did you plan your suicide for a while?

Once the doctor gave me medication for me to be able to sleep and eat, I had enough energy to start planning how I was going to end my life. I attempted four times, and on the fourth time when I had once again failed, I was very angry and screaming when I awoke. My very wonderful friends and neighbors who came to my apartment took me to the hospital – not just THE hospital but a psychiatric hospital. Once I arrived, they quickly began assessing the situation and I was admitted. I was there for 3 weeks and I began to see a psychiatrist who looked at me and said “You have been sad for a very long time, and I am going to help you.” Those words, the way he said it so gently and looked at me in the eyes, made a difference. I felt like FINALLY someone understood my pain.

If someone had asked you if you were considering suicide, would it have made a difference in your planning?

I think if someone would have asked me “Do you want to kill yourself and do you have a plan?” I would have given them a very detailed account of what I was planning: time, place, method, etc. And maybe they could have helped me.

What do you consider to be the most important step you took towards recovery?

The most important step I took towards my recovery was accepting my diagnosis. The next step was working through the guilt and shame I felt because I now was among the group of many with mental illness. I did not see it as a blessing that I was diagnosed and that I could live with a diagnosis with the right support system, psychiatrist, trauma therapist and medications.

If you had any advice to give anyone who might be feeling that suicide is the answer to their situation, what would it be?

I would tell anyone feeling alone, discouraged, hopeless and like a failure that it takes time, but it does get better. It is a journey, not a race, so you have to be patient and kind to yourself. The pain can be overwhelming but please reach out for help. Even if there is just a spark of hope, hold on to that spark. It will become the flame that will carry you through your recovery.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained counselor

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Returning to School: Children’s Mental Health When There Is No “Normal”

sarahbb : August 19, 2020 12:16 pm : Blog

For many children and young adults, the start of the school year is right around the corner. If you are a parent, you have been undoubtedly inundated with countless emails about proposed frameworks, surveys and Zoom meetings as schools work to address the needs of their community members.

In addition to the continued changes to your own children’s routine and structure, schools within individual communities have widely varied plans, so in any given neighborhood, there are likely some kids heading back into in-person classrooms, others working with a hybrid or remote strategy and still more who may be newly homeschooling.

Each of these school styles is accompanied by its own sets of concerns, from wondering what a classroom will look like while distanced and masked, to wondering when they will ever be able to spend time with friends or return to sports.

There is no ideal solution right now. Both schools and families have to begin the school year with flexibility and patience during a time that everyone already feels emotionally taxed.

Be Aware

As parents, it is more important than ever to be aware of how our children are feeling. Whether or not your child has a history of a mental health condition, extended periods of uncertainty and isolation can cause anxiety and depression. While each illness has its own symptoms, some common warning signs include:

  • Excessive worrying or anxiety
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating
  • Extreme mood changes
  • Periods of irritability or aggression
  • Changes in sleep habits or nightmares
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Ongoing stomach aches or headaches

These can all indicate distress that your child or teen may not be able to articulate.

Validate Their Feelings

Regardless of whether kids are walking into a physical classroom or logging on for the fall, school will not be the way they remember it before March. Those heading to school will find their classrooms altered, need to adjust to use of masks throughout the school day, will likely stay in one classroom, and have reduced interactions requiring social distancing.

Students schooling from home will now need to acclimate to more structured online school days than they experienced in the spring, higher expectations and an increased need for internal motivation and organization.

Both scenarios can be overwhelming. Affirm that all of their feelings– sadness, frustration, anxiety and fear– are valid. Reassure them that although we don’t have a quick fix for the current environment, this will pass, and that you will get through it together. Bear in mind that our kids are also closely watching our reactions to determine their own perspectives.

Recognize Their Challenges

The stressors facing children and young adults this fall reach far beyond social components. Everything about their educational system has changed with a lot of unknowns:

  • Uncertainty of plan: If your child is attending school in person, there is uncertainty about whether that will be feasibly maintained since district and local guidelines fluctuate daily. Meanwhile, those at home have no formalized strategy for resuming in-person learning, with some districts setting status dates as early as November or as late as next school year.
  • Social isolation: While heading to school will provide some social interaction, nothing feels normal about sitting six feet apart, pausing group work and moving throughout the building for classes, and eliminating locker use. Most schools are closing lunchrooms or even holding “silent lunches” while masks are removed. Because it is natural to congregate, touch and play, these new restrictions can be particularly stressful for children. Those working in a remote setting will be relegated fully to screens, with broadly varying access to teachers, resources and classmates.
  • New school structure: Outside of the social elements, prepare your kids to know that the school day will look very different. Materials from pencils and books can no longer be shared and many of the materials that warm up a classroom such as bean bags and reading nooks will be missing this year. Most students working from home have received little information about what to expect or how to create an environment at home that supplements the structure of online learning.
  • Higher expectations: While the quick shutdown in the spring left most schools and families scrambling, schools have set higher expectations for attendance, grading and the amount of school work for the year ahead. Both remote and in-person students will have reduced access to teachers, support staff and on-site resources, which can create a larger learning gap for students struggling academically. Older students preparing for exams like SATs/ACTs or applying to colleges may feel particularly anxious given the lack of information available about revised fall protocols.
  • Missing milestones: For older students in particular, many students are missing the milestones associated with high school and college: Fall Homecoming events and dances, moving into the freshman dorm or first apartment or even taking that first car ride with friends. For those entering college, plans may be delayed or halted all together, or changed from a school away from home to a local community college. Younger students may be missing the first bus ride, the ability to join extracurriculars or enjoy the tactile environment of kindergarten.
  • Health concerns: For those who have underlying health conditions or family members at high risk for COVID-19, leaving the home environment for school, sports or other activities can add tremendous anxiety. For those who have spent their summer in higher isolation, some shorter outings with masks, practicing distancing and handwashing may alleviate some of the associated stress. You can also discuss ways to appropriately social distance but still be in contact safely with loved ones.

Access Resources

As the school year begins, establishing regular check-ins with children can help to alleviate your child’s stress and improve their outlook. Help older children recognize that schools and organizations are doing everything they can to provide the activities they seek, even if modified for current circumstances. Conversations can be as simple as the informal questions about their day over the dinner table, or by setting up a weekly date together to take their emotional temperature. Reinforcing that you are there to support them through talk, touch and time together are instrumental in times of turmoil.

If you have a child who is struggling, there are organizations ready to help.

  • Many mental health practitioners are continuing teletherapy options or even offering in-office appointments.
  • Talk to your local school administrators to see if they are adding any social and emotional learning curriculum related to altered school conditions.
  • The NAMI HelpLine team can be reached Monday through Friday 9am – 5pm CT at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or text NAMI to 741741 in the event of a mental health crisis.
  • The Illinois Department of Human Services offers directories of mental health providers, school based mental health resources and activity ideas at home as a family.
  • The Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership lists useful resources for a number of youth mental health concerns.
  • The Wrightslaw Yellow Pages for Kids lists resources by state for children with disabilities, including educational consultants, occupational therapists and advocates.

NAMI Illinois and its local affiliates stand with you through these difficult times.

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When Your Loved One Is in Crisis: Support for Families : July 14, 2020 2:57 pm : Blog

It is normal to experience emotions ranging from shock to frustration or fear when a family member is in a mental health crisis. It can be difficult to put aside your own feelings while working to defuse the situation in front of you.

It might seem that yours is the only family dealing with these challenges, but you are not alone. Even before COVID-19, nearly 44 million adults experienced mental illness each year. One in five youth ages 13-18 experiences a severe mental health condition at some point during their life.

Unfortunately, when someone living with mental illness goes into crisis, the ripple effect on the family can be particularly damaging. Caregivers to a family member with mental illness spend an average of 32 hours per week providing unpaid care to their loved one, a demanding job that can impact the well-being of the caretakers. You can read more about taking care of yourself in this NAMI article.

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CIT Training Bridges the Gap Between Law Enforcement and the Mental Health Community : July 14, 2020 2:53 pm : Blog

With long-standing budget shortfalls in Illinois, accessible and affordable mental health resources have become sparse, with availability varying widely around the state. Consequently, when emergency services are contacted during a mental health crisis, law enforcement officers are now the most frequent first responders. This, of course, can be a frightening experience for any family. Fortunately, many law enforcement officers around the state go through training certified by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, called Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. 

Illinois Training Programs

CIT training is an in-depth 40-hour class that provides intensive training for recognizing and addressing individuals who have a mental illness or other behavioral disability. Goals for the program include:

  • Enabling law enforcement officers to identify why an individual may be in crisis
  • Providing tools for de-escalation
  • Educating law enforcement about appropriate community resources available that may be more appropriate than incarceration
  • Connecting community resource leadership with law enforcement

According to the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, topics of focus are:

  • Mental illness signs and symptoms
  • Child and adolescent issues
  • Geriatric issues
  • Co-occurring disorders – substance abuse
  • Verbal de-escalation and tactical response
  • Returning veterans and PTSD
  • Risk assessment and crisis intervention skills
  • Law enforcement response and legal issues
  • Medical conditions and psychotropic medications
  • Autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities
  • Community resources

Fostering Relationships

One of the key components of this training program is ensuring that those who have lived experience with mental illness are included throughout the training process. 

Officers have the opportunity to participate in discussions with individuals living with mental illness and their family members. Pat Doyle, Founder and President of Vision for Change, a consulting organization that partners with CIT training programs noted:

“This is a valuable experience for law enforcement. These presentations and discussions, by describing the reality of living with mental illness, change attitudes and break down stereotypes in several ways: 

First, many of the officers in the room don’t have the opportunity to see individuals from calls when they are doing well–only when they are in crisis. It is important for them to hear first-hand how directing people out of the criminal system, and instead connecting them with the appropriate community services, helps individuals grow and thrive. 

Second, it gives officers a chance to interact directly by asking questions on ways to communicate with them in crisis.

All of this is critical to ensure that people living with mental illness are seen in a three-dimensional manner.”

To close out the training, officers are taken through a series of roleplays of realistic scenarios that may be encountered on the job. While these tactics are presented in relation to mental health issues, they provide de-escalation skills that can be implemented across a broad spectrum of scenarios officers face on the job.

The CIT Model at Work

Doyle notes that the use of CIT was never meant to stop after training. To truly be successful, law enforcement needs the partnership of the community around them, from hospitals and dispatchers to universities, government agencies and libraries. 

Police departments are hard at work to make that happen. Kasey Franco, Director of Training and Education for NAMI Chicago, noted that in addition to mental health information and support from NAMI, the Chicago Police Department CIT training sessions are led by members from local community organizations. By bringing key community organizations into the room, officers have the opportunity to immediately begin cultivating relationships with these key stakeholders.

Additionally in 2014, the Park Ridge Police Department, recognizing the need for community involvement, secured a grant with the US Department of Justice to “craft and pilot a whole-community approach to mental health that extends and connects efforts beyond CIT training.” During that time, with the help of a community task force, they were able to create a community resource guide available to individuals who may be in need of services, successfully trained 100% of their sworn staff in CIT training and officers found they had better de-escalation tools to utilize on the job on an ongoing basis.

Troy Siewert, Police Lieutenant and CIT Coordinator for the Orland Park Police Department talked about the positive impact of knowingly changing lives over the past five years through the CIT model. “What a great opportunity this has been by implementing CIT. We are in a position to give back to the community. There are so many people in our community who need mental health services but don’t know how to access them. When you can remove obstacles to needed care, you help them on their road to recovery and reduce the need for police activity at the same time.”

The Orland Park department has compiled a comprehensive book of local resources–but the officers don’t stop there. Through a partnership forged with Trinity Services, if officers need their support on a call, Trinity is available 24/7 to be on scene within 45 minutes. While that step is rarely needed, officers do provide a referral form to Trinity, who will outreach to the party in crisis within 48 hours. Trinity then offers six free sessions, with the first session also typically within that first 48 hours. A police contact is also sometimes assigned to follow up to check in and ensure that the individual or family member has the resources they need.

Siewert said, “We remove the obstacles. It is often difficult for someone in crisis to make that call for help, so we have someone to call them. And, we remove wait times and finances from the equation.”

What Can You Do?

  • If you or a loved one are at risk of requiring intervention from law enforcement, reach out to your local police department during a stable period to introduce yourselves. If the department has a social worker or CIT coordinator accessible, talk with them about the most effective ways to interface with law enforcement should it be needed. 
  • Become an advocate to keep this work moving forward. Support funding for CIT training for both law enforcement and community organizations, something that has been quietly declining.
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Coping with COVID-19 and Mental Illness : July 14, 2020 1:41 pm : Blog

By Susie Piasecki

According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

  • 1 in 5 American adults contend with a psychiatric illness
  • Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide

Millions of people in the U.S. live with psychiatric disorders.  Some seek treatment. Many have hope. All can recover.  There is always hope.  People can and do live in wellness even when living with a mental illness.  This article is designed to generate some ideas and strategies that propel you forward on your road to recovery, coping with COVID-19 while living with mental illness…I wanted to share with you some of the things that have been helping me during this difficult time when some of us feel displaced and frustrated, depressed and anxious, etc.

People living with a psychiatric disorder have a medical condition that – like coping with the preventative measures of COVID-19 – disrupts one’s daily functioning, thoughts, feelings, mood, and the ability to relate to others.  Although mental illness does not discriminate and all walks of life are at risk, the good news about mental illness is that there is hope for recovery.  The same can be said for coronavirus.  Although COVID-19 knows no boundaries either, there is hope…people can and do recover from coronavirus, too.  We will get through this, together…and the pandemic will end, eventually.  Hopefully soon.  Meanwhile, every day we have the opportunity to empower ourselves and stay resilient.  (There is nothing normal about what is happening…maybe that is why I’m thriving now because I’m definitely not normal.  Or so I’ve been told.  Actually, I’m certifiable.  😉  But anyway…)

There is no “one size fits all” way to go about coping with these challenging times but we all do have certain guidelines to follow to keep us safe.  Social distancing, wearing face masks, handwashing, disinfecting and sanitizing things, self-isolating, and other safety precautions.  We’re supposed to be on “lockdown” and restricted from non-essential businesses, public areas, etc.  The way I try to look at it is, with this whole shelter in place thing, I’m just grateful to have shelter and a safe place to be in.  It was the first thought that came to my mind after the initial confusion and disappointment of the lockdown initiation faded away.

I wrote this from a journaling prompt one day not long ago…I was on a mental health conference call.  We were given 2-3 minutes to complete the sentence with whatever came to mind:


Right now, for the stay at home order from the governor, I am feeling:

like I’m trapped in a bad Twilight Zone episode.  But I know we’re in this together and we’re all going to make it through.  Right now, we’re making history.  These are difficult, challenging times.  But it shows how resilient we are.  And it is shining a light on mental health.  It is actually an opportunity to break down barriers of the stigma of mental illness, with all of the depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, substance abuse, and the like, that are taking place today.  Hopefully there will be more kindness, compassion, and understanding toward people living with mental illness now, more than ever, because of the coronavirus crisis.  I have hope…

With shelter in place, it’s hard for all of us.  It brings up so many different thoughts and feelings.  For one thing, there seems to be a constant negotiation between our symptoms and our sense of safety and security, and even hopefulness.  Then there’s our mental and physical health.  If we’re struggling with one, it’s possible we may also lag with the other.  Sometimes people in recovery may feel overwhelmed with depression and anxiety, and/or other symptoms of mental illness; and yet, we must stay relentlessly vigilant about preserving our physical health during these uncertain times.  Mental health affects physical health, and vice versa.

I have more good days than bad, but my anxiety got the better of me one particular week whenI woke up one morning with an anxiety attack and was extremely fearful of getting coronavirus, then just started crying.  The remainder of the week, I woke up to COVID-19 dreams.  Can anyone relate?  Probably, I bet.  But somehow, we emerge through the process.  That one day, I ended up taking action; called my supporters, disinfected my place a little, just continued following safety precautions as usual, and kept busy.  It helped me feel more empowered…and by the end of the day, it was like the anxiety attack never even happened!  Even though symptoms may wax and wane, we can always get through this.  Since coronavirus can devastate both physical and mental health, health has become the new wealth.

To establish a sense of “normalcy” or structure, since I don’t really have a regular schedule anymore, I try my best to develop a simple, loose routine throughout the day/week.  I wake up at around the same time every morning, take my meds first thing at my regular time, and then have coffee (God bless coffee!) and my morning cigarette.

Then I make my bed…every single day.  If there’s only one thing I did all day, it’s that I made my bed in the morning.  Similarly to what one marine officer once basically said: it may seem trivial, unnecessary, or not worth the effort to some, but it’s a small act that when completed, can lead to another small accomplishment (like taking a shower, or eating breakfast, etc.), and then another small accomplishment, and another…and before you know it, you’ve taken action and have gotten off to a good start to your day!  And if I’ve done nothing else the entire rest of the day other than having made my bed, at least I have a nice, well-made bed to climb into when night falls.  Then hopefully I’ll get a good night’s sleep and tomorrow will be a better day.  But I always make my bed in the morning.  It’s just something that comes naturally now and is a really good habit to fall into.

Not long after all that, I end up calling my Mom every morning just to say hello.  I don’t know what I’d do without my Mom.  That connection, that communication, is something else that just comes naturally.  My morning just doesn’t feel right without having said good morning to her.  We also talk throughout the day during this pandemic, and we continue to call to say goodnight every night, which we’ve done even before things changed because of COVID-19.  We laugh, listen, support one another; we basically are just there for one another.  She’s the best.

Speaking of communication (no pun intended), I try to stay connected to my friends and other family members as well, often.  I’m so grateful for all of them.  They help provide the balance I need to stay well and offer support and a sense of community while isolated, so I don’t feel alone.  I zoom, text, call and email with friends and family, and have telehealth sessions with my therapist once a week.  With all this together, although COVID-19 imposes boundaries on my lifestyle, it can’t take away my freedom to interact with others.  Human connection…relationships…keep me going through this pandemic.

Monday through Friday there’s a community mental health drop-in center conference call that’s held in the afternoon for an hour, and I call in just about every day.  What I appreciate most about these calls is the way they start and end.  In the beginning, everyone checks in with one thing they’re grateful for and a daily joke, if they brought one.  The focus on gratitude, even if it’s only for a moment, briefly makes me reflect on something I might not otherwise give a second thought to.  I really recognize the value of that during the pandemic.  And then there’s lightheartedness and humor, too.  Then, to end the conference call, we say one thing we’re looking forward to…which to me resonates with the idea of hope.  The majority of the conference call is a positive topic of the day that is relevant and applies to coping with these stressful times.  There are several participants on the line, and the topic is open for comments and discussion throughout the call.  Love it!

They say stress will kill you faster than the coronavirus.  So humor is healthy!  I laugh a little every day…some sources?  Comedians, comedy movies and shows (i.e. – SNL, Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, etc.), jokes from Alexa, Siri, or online, etc., funny memes on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, or yucking it up with a friend or family member…anything to get a good belly laugh to help reduce the stress!  I read somewhere that if you laugh for a minute, you will boost your immune system for the next 24 hours.  Which is exactly what you need to do to fight off coronavirus – have a strong immune system!  Laughter truly is the best medicine.  Here’s a joke for you: “To the thief who took my anti-depressants, I hope you’re happy!”  Lol  😊  I try to laugh at least a few times a day every day.  If I succumb to coronavirus, I at least want to have my sense of humor intact.

Something else I found enormously helpful is exercise.  I know, I know…blah blah blah.  We all know exercise is good for you.  But I highly recommend it, if possible, to walk/workout.  My daily workouts were born out of boredom from this quarantine; but at first, I started out by simply walking around my apartment complex, just a few times…to get some exercise, some fresh air.  Then gradually I increased the number of times I went around the building and eventually endedup challenging myself to alternately jogging/walking around the building several times, and now I’m gradually increasing that.  My current goal is to run consecutive laps, numerous times (eventually – albeit, I’m still a smoker, trying to quit…hopefully, one day I’ll completely quit, due to the daily exercising!).  Regardless, if you’re suffering from quarantine fatigue, I encourage you to be active.  It helps!

Another thing exercise is helpful for in my daily schedule is it keeps me on cue with my hygiene.  Basically, I stay in my routine of showering after working out.  It’s really important to sustain routines, including with what seems as simple as a daily shower (whether or not I exercise that day).  If I compromise doing this everyday activity, “letting it slide” so to speak, I may end up getting depressed and then other symptoms may soon follow.  And wearing a mask all the time makes me stay on target with brushing my teeth regularly, too.  (Ha ha).  Trimming my nails so that handwashing becomes safer, as well, is important.  I keep up on things like this.  So maintaining my hygiene is important, also.

And meals at regular times, cooking (creating healthy homemade meals more often), and engaging in hobbies like playing an instrument and just listening to music or creating artwork, staying busy with self-care like journaling or practicing spirituality, whether that’s communing with nature, observing prayer and meditation, or maybe even watching a religious broadcast on tv, if that’s what floats your boat…these and/or other things can empower you to move past your symptoms and into recovery.  I know these things have helped me.  COVID-19 doesn’t have the power to take away your ability to adjust and transform through this pandemic.  You have the power to create change.

If you feel you need extra support during this challenging time, there is help.  The NAMI Helpline is here to assist you at 800-950-6264 M-F, 10 am – 6 pm, ET.  Also, there’s the NAMI Crisis Text Line.  Just text “NAMI” to 741741 for 24/7 free, confidential crisis counseling.  Remember, there is always hope.

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Get to Know Frederick Nitsch : July 14, 2020 1:16 pm : Blog

Frederick Nitsch has found many ways to use his experiences as an individual living with mental illness to help others. In addition to serving on “lived-experience panels” and as a role player during Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, he also leads Connection Recovery Support Groups and presents in Ending the Silence Programs. Frederick is affiliated with NAMI Chicago.

As a person living with a mental health condition, please explain the role you play during CIT training. 

On the lived-experience panels, three or four of us share our recovery stories and then answer questions the police had. Most of our stories included past interactions with law enforcement, usually negative. The most frequent questions were what police could have done better in the instances recalled by the panelists, and whether we (the panelists) believed that a single event or group of traumatic incidents caused our mental health conditions. The answer to that last question was “No” because even in the case of trauma, panelists identified other factors (or acknowledged the influence of unknown factors) that contributed to their most difficult years.

I participated in nearly every role-play at Chicago’s police academy for 2+ years. The role-plays, for which I had to build a scenario, were always intense. The police were evaluated based on whether they were validating the emotional truths I was experiencing and expressing, or if their words and actions were – intentionally or not – making me feel worse, i.e., unheard, not understood, and/or more frustrated.

The way to approach or question a person experiencing a mental health crisis might be obvious to a social worker or to someone who’s spent years in support groups, but it is not always obvious after just a week of education. Some police, though, seemed to be naturally able to empathize with my character, which goes a long way toward de-escalating a situation, establishing rapport, and encouraging the person in crisis to provide information.

More important in many ways than the role-plays themselves were when the entire team would watch half of the videos taken the previous day, so that all officers would see themselves at least once. It was our job, as representatives of both NAMI and the mental health community at large, to use the videos and our own experiences to educate the police on how and why people experiencing a mental health crisis cannot be treated like criminals by people whose job inclines them to think of people as criminals. The word “unlearn” was used a lot.

What impact do you think it has on those in training to be able to hear directly what it’s like to live with a mental illness?

My highest hope from these trainings is that those police who did learn something and who took CIT seriously are not silent when they’re in the field, that they take the lead when they wind up in a mental health-related call (and perhaps show more patience and empathy on other calls), and that they intervene when they see another officer doing something wrong, no matter who has what rank or in what jurisdiction they find themselves. As long as we live in a city where police are asked to intervene non-violent mental health situations, they need to be trained appropriately.

What is your favorite part of being involved with CIT training for CPD?

On a personal level, I enjoy speaking on panels because it gives me a chance to re-tell my own story, which I believe is important for someone in recovery to do from time to time. The way we tell our stories changes over time – hopefully in a way that reflects growth and the clarity afforded by distance. I enjoyed doing the role-plays for a similar reason, as to be able to choose to get into the headspace from a difficult time in my life – and to know that it would not consume me – served as a reminder that I had truly come a long way.

I hope I gave officers a few new tools, i.e., lines of questioning or some understanding of the virtue of patience in these situations. But what felt the best, the most important thing I was able to do or bear witness to, was when through my actions or my words I affirmed to those police who were already instinctively doing the right thing that they were deserving of encouragement, further education (such as the advanced CIT class at the fire academy), and respect – because we need more police like them and because we need them to lead by example.

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