It’s OK to Be an Ally First, Advocate Second

Mental health advocacy has come a long way, especially thanks to NAMI and its beginnings in Wisconsin with AMI. So many more people are aware of mental illness and the importance of mental health, and they are proudly speaking up and out against stigma.

Oftentimes, those advocating for mental health and progress for programs and resources are the people experiencing mental illness themselves. It is a powerful tool, because we get to hear real-life stories about dealing with conditions, giving power and validity to the challenges they have to face.

However, just as we learn from these personal stories of mental illness, it can be immensely tiring and demanding to live with mental illness, let alone to talk about and advocate for mental wellness all the time. You can feel sometimes as though you NEED to advocate for yourself, because if you don’t, who will? Your story is empowering the movement and bringing change, so your voice is needed!

But I want to remind you that taking care of your own well-being is the top priority. If sharing your story and talking about mental health challenges wears you down, it is OK to step back. Even if you are not actively advocating for change in the mental health field, believing in and supporting the cause makes you an ally, which is just as important. Taking your medication, going to therapy, practicing self-care, and regulating your emotions are all part of supporting change in mental health, because you are making a difference in the life of someone experiencing mental illness- your own.

Never feel discouraged for being an ally first and an advocate second. If you feel able, you can advocate at any time, but it is ALWAYS OK to put alliance for your own mental health on top.

A Word of Encouragement to Myself

My Dear Self,

It’s been a hard time for you lately. Finding motivation to do much has been really challenging, and you often feel disappointed in what little you manage to accomplish. You constantly are battling thoughts that bring you down, discourage you, and make life feel meaningless. It’s like you’re pushing against a boulder that’s been rooted in cement, and it is incredibly tiring.

But my dear self, I want to remind you of how resilient you are. Every day, you keep on going, even when it feels impossible. You fall down, yet you manage to get back up, even if not immediately. You are doing a great job, even if it does not feel like it.

You are always so hard on yourself! You do not need to be. You have overcome so many things and gotten past every challenge so far. Don’t you see? All that you have managed, the mountains you have climbed? YOU did that. Strong, beautiful YOU.

Do not worry about the future challenges to come. There will always be more, because life likes to keep us on our toes. But just as you’ve conquered diversity in the past, you will conquer it again in the future. Do not worry, my dear self. You are able.

A final word, my dear self: if others try to make you feel anything less than strong, beautiful, powerful, capable, lovable, remind them of their strength. We do not become more successful by tearing down others’ successes. Rather, we must lift each other up. And as you lift them up, you will build yourself up as well.

Very much love,

Written by Heather Ehnert, Communications & Advocacy Intern

When Stigma Prevents People from Getting Help

While talking with a friend over coffee recently, he told me that he had to see a doctor for some severe gastrointestinal issues and pain he had been experiencing. The doctor thought my friend Michael* might have Crohn’s disease, a serious autoimmune condition that manifests throughout the GI tract. After some tests, they luckily found that it was not Crohn’s, but rather, stress-induced GI symptoms. For treatment, Michael received a prescription for a probiotic and a medicine to calm his stomach, but overall, his doctor told him that he would need to begin counseling to manage his stress.

I told him, “Michael, that will be great! You’ve always had so much stress and anxiety about homework and succeeding and doing your absolute best all the time, it only makes sense that it’s started to affect your body physically. Counseling is a wonderful tool. I know it will help you so much.”

“Maybe…” he said, “I’ve never thought I needed counseling. I’m so embarrassed to admit it. You’re the only person I feel comfortable telling this to because of your own experiences. I haven’t told anyone else, besides my parents obviously.”

“There is nothing to be embarrassed about whatsoever!” I replied passionately. “Your mental health is JUST as important as your physical health, and it deserves just as much care and attention. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that even though mental health conditions happen in the brain, the brain controls the rest of the body, and therefore, the body experiences physical symptoms alongside mental illness. They are linked! With counseling, you’ll be able to care for your mental well-being and learn stress management techniques, which will then help your physical health.”

Michael was still very hesitant about whether he actually wanted to go to counseling, even after his doctor advised him to do so and after I explained how much it will help his overall health. This frustrated and saddened me, because the stigma claiming that people who experience mental illness, or who seek treatment for mental health challenges, are embarrassing, shameful, lowly; this stigma was going to prevent my friend from getting the help he needed. He was taking his new medicine just fine, but the mental health treatment was an unnecessary suggestion, not a real form of medical care, in his eyes and the eyes of so many others.

It is for people like Michael that we fight the stigma surrounding mental illness. All mental health concerns and treatments deserve to be treated seriously and to not be judged. There is no shame in admitting you have a mental health condition, and there is no shame in getting help.

Written by Heather Ehnert, Communications & Advocacy Intern

Helping Others and When to Say No

If you are the type of person whose loved ones would be quick to describe as kind, compassionate and understanding, you may be the person that these loved ones go to when they need a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on. This can be great, not only because you get to do something for another human being, but also because helping others is incredibly rewarding on a personal level. However, it is extremely important to know when you are able to help, and when you need to say no.

Although it may be hard, we have to learn to care for ourselves first before we can care for others. The best example of this is the oxygen masks that fall down in an airplane when cabin pressure drops. If you go to put the oxygen mask of the struggling person sitting next to you, but neglect to put on your own mask first, you may become unconscious before you can help the other person. Then there are two people who need help! To put this into everyday perspective, if a friend calls you and needs to vent about a bad day with their boss at work, but you’re headed into the gym to relieve some stress of your own, tell your friend you will call back after you work out. You likely won’t be able to listen as well or respond in an understanding, non-self-related way if you are too stressed yourself.

To extend the oxygen mask further, say the person sitting next to you has a physical ailment that makes putting their oxygen mask on quite difficult for you to help with, as you aren’t sure what their needs are. This is where it is extremely important to acknowledge that you cannot help; although you may want to assist this person, if you are not equipped to do so, it may bring more harm to you (and the person) in the long run. To bring it back to everyday, if your friend who is calling is crying and yelling about their workday and wants you to tell them how to handle it, but you know that being yelled at can cause you to feel very anxious, you need to be honest and say that you are sorry, but you are not the best person to help. It might seem as though you’re abandoning a friend in their time of need, but this is not true. Taking care of one’s own well-being is the top priority, and you are not responsible for anyone’s well-being but your own. Like I said earlier, you can’t help someone with their oxygen mask if you yourself can’t breathe.

Learning this skill of when to say no to helping others will be very challenging for some people; for others, they are very familiar with their limits and can separate themselves from the situation easily. Knowing what your limits are may take some time and experience, but try to self-reflect on what those limits are before the cabin pressure drops.

Reminder: You Are Enough

Especially within the community of people with mental illness, it is so common to feel that we are not enough: not doing enough, not doing things well enough, not being good enough. Negative thoughts and feelings and low self-esteem make it difficult to feel accomplished and successful, because we can always find the shortcomings and mistakes. The outside world tends to add to these feelings since we are constantly being reminded of what others are taking on and accomplishing.

What I’m going to say next might sound cliché, but it is completely necessary: no matter what, You Are Enough. Regardless of your successes and failures, your strengths and weaknesses, your eases and hardships, you are enough, simply for the reason that you are a person and you matter. There is innate value in every human being, including you. This value is not diminished by a failed relationship, the loss of a job, a bad grade, or even a bad day. Such things are mere life experiences that help shape us and make us who we are as people, but they do not make us matter less or make us insufficient.

If you are struggling with feeling that you aren’t enough, resist searching for that reassurance from outside places, because it needs to be found from within. So repeat after me: I am enough. Say it 100 times if you need to; write it on your mirrors; put a daily reminder in your phone. It may take time and a lot of disbelief at first, but it is worth it; YOU are worth feeling like you’re enough and feeling good about yourself. Once you truly begin to see your value, which is not based on what you do or how well you do it, you will begin to notice how extraordinary you really are- just for being you.

A Renewed Appreciation: CIP Training Reflection

According to the CIT & CIP Wisconsin website, Crisis Intervention Partners training, also known as CIP training, is designed for wide-ranging audiences interested in better understanding and improving interactions with people who experience mental health crises. Participants include correctional officers, 911 dispatchers, emergency personnel, hospital staff, teachers, social workers, and more. Through information and practice, CIP is re-training participants to effectively use attitudes, beliefs, and verbal/non-verbal skills as part of their response to crisis situations.

Not knowing exactly what to expect, this training was an eye-opening experience for me. Because CIP training is modeled after CIT training, a 40-hour training for police teams, it is comprised significantly of material used in law enforcement. I have never had very much experience in the law enforcement world and the fields that work with police officers, so I haven’t had the opportunity to see some of the difficult situations they have to face and the challenging decisions they have to make every day.

The majority of attendees in my training were Emergency/911 Dispatchers. Throughout the training, I was able to hear some of their stories, both inspiring and heartbreaking. Suicide and how to help a person expressing suicidal ideations were frequent topics that we discussed in training, and many of the dispatchers and other jail personnel have encountered it first-hand. Learning more about these situations and real-life experiences that the professionals in my training had faced, I couldn’t believe how strong they are. I have experienced a mental health crisis myself, and I was so grateful for everyone who helped and treated me kindly when I was in need. I so appreciate the 911 dispatchers, jail guards, jail nurses, and police office secretaries in my training sessions, taking time out of their work week to learn how to care for those in crisis with understanding and knowledge.

The choices that police officers and dispatchers have to quickly make in time of crisis are not easy in the slightest, and yet, they have chosen these jobs because they want to help. It is so encouraging that many counties throughout the state of Wisconsin are taking the opportunity to be trained in handling mental health crisis, as it is so needed, and I feel content knowing that those who are experiencing crisis will be surrounded by teams of people who know what to do and how to help.

Written by Heather Ehnert, Communications & Advocacy Intern

We Want YOU at NAMI Wisconsin's Action on the Square!

Action on the Square, to be held this year on May 3rd, is a day to spread awareness about mental health, learn about current legislative issues, and tell your elected officials what people affected by mental illness need to thrive! Anyone who cares deeply about mental health can attend this event, and no previous advocacy experience is required!

We need your voice and your story to meet with Wisconsin legislative officers and educate them about how they can improve the lives of their constituents with mental illness. Here are some cool aspects you will get to participate in if you join us:

Be Part of History
Advocating on legislation is one of the most impactful and exciting ways to take part in the political process. Now more than ever, government officials are gaining a better understanding of mental health and substance abuse issues. Keep the momentum going by meeting with your legislator and making NAMI’s voice stronger.

Connect with Others
At the start of the event, you will have the opportunity to talk with representatives from helpful organizations in Wisconsin that support mental health, as well as meet other individuals that care about mental health advocacy. Community is a huge part in dealing with mental illness and being successful in recovery!

Become an Expert on the Issues
You may be thinking, “How in the world am I supposed to advocate and tell my story to legislators?!” But we got you covered! Before we head into the Wisconsin Capitol, you will get to enjoy brunch while learning how to best share your story to make an impact. We’ll give you an overview of a typical meeting with a legislator and provide background on the issues and talking points.

Rally on the Steps
To pump everyone up, mental health advocates and the members of the Wisconsin State Legislature will lead us in a rousing call to action on the Capitol Steps. Speakers will be sharing their personal stories to encourage us to share ours.

Share Your Story
Everybody has a story, but not everybody gets the opportunity to share their story with their state legislators. NAMI’s Action on the Square event is our opportunity to stand together and speak up about mental health. Together, we can remind elected officials that mental illness affects everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or age. We can remind them that without mental health care, Americans pay a high price in unemployment, homelessness and criminalization. As advocates of mental health care, we know that treatment works and recovery is possible. Let’s make sure Wisconsin government knows as well.

Registration for Action on the Square ends on Friday, April 6th. Be sure to sign up now so Wisconsin legislators can hear your story!

Click here to learn more about Action on the Square. 

A Note on Self-Care

Self-Care is So Much LESS than Bubble Baths and Smoothie Bowls. 

Lately, the internet has been obsessed with things like taking luxurious bubble baths foamed with bath bombs, going to the gym dressed in cute workout gear after enjoying a #glutenfree smoothie bowl, and giving yourself a DIY charcoal-peel face mask, labeling it “self-care”. While these are wonderful ways to pamper and care for yourself, they make it seem like self-caring actions are only those that are Instagram-worthy.

In reality, self-care is so much more, or even, so much less than that. It isn’t always glamorous or exciting. In fact, self-care is as simple as brushing your teeth, taking a shower, eating a balanced diet, and exercising moderately. With all the mixed messages about self-care, it can be intimidating and complicated to do what our body and brain is asking of us and feel that we are actually doing enough.

When cleaning our home or making dinner, we should celebrate and thank ourselves. Such activities may feel like they’re expected from us and don’t deserve praise, but they are the most basic form of self-love. If you have dealt or are dealing with a mental illness, you may understand how the littlest types of self-care, like getting out of bed and drinking a glass of water, are mountainous tasks; self-care is usually the last thing on your mind and the least desirable to do. But it is during those times when you must remind yourself that every act of self-care, no matter how small, is a victory. You are worth being cared for and you are worth the self-love, even if you don’t feel or believe it.

So celebrate when your friends and family take care of themselves! Let’s make it a vow to focus on caring for ourselves and appreciating ourselves for it, as well as reaching out to help others when their own self-care feels like too mighty of a task.

Written by Heather Ehnert, Communications & Advocacy Intern

Why Olympians Need to Talk About Mental Health

The Olympic Games are an event many look forward to; watching the unbelievable skills demonstrated during each competition is thrilling and commands much respect for those competing. These extraordinary athletes have dedicated their lives to training their bodies and minds in order to be the best of the best at their sport. Some call them real-life heroes, the role models that represent their countries.

One can only imagine the grueling days of training and resistance against oneself that accompany the fame and glory of success at the Games. Olympic athletes require immense physical strength and even more mental strength and stability to challenge not only their competitors, but themselves. Such an intense career likely makes it extremely difficult for athletes to handle the stress and pressure of needing to succeed, which can lead to mental illness or general lack of mental wellness. About 1 in 5 people are living with mental illness, therefore 1 in 5 Olympians are living with a mental illness as well. But if mental illness is so common, why don’t more of them talk about it? With mental stamina so crucial to this career, why is the conversation about mental health among Olympic athletes so minimal?

The answer may simply be the stigma that surrounds mental illness. The exact opposite of what athletes want is to be viewed as “weak” or “incapable”. Our society often labels those with mental illness this way, viewing the illness before the person and giving it the power. Even for the Olympians that do not live with mental illness but have struggled with remaining mentally strong, they may fear that talking about it will cause their competitors and the public to view them differently, negatively.

Yet, this is the exact time when it is perfect to talk about mental health: if the physically and mentally strongest people on earth struggle with their mental health but are willing to speak up about it, others can know that people do not experience mental health conditions because they are weak and have lack of character. Rather, our circumstances or body chemistry make mental wellness extra challenging, which makes talking about self-care and forms of mental wellness even more important. We may not all be Olympic athletes, but we all experience stress, loss, and demands in life. When Olympians open up about their struggles and discuss ways to combat them, we all benefit by fighting the stigma against mental illness and by learning ways to care for ourselves.

Written by Heather Ehnert, Communications & Advocacy Intern

**Adapted from NAMI National’s Blog “Why Don’t More Olympians Talk About Mental Illness?”

Statement on Parkland School Shooting

NAMI Wisconsin is deeply saddened by the tragic school shooting that occurred Wednesday in Parkland, Florida. These tragedies impact our communities - our parents, our children, our school professionals, our first responders - the mental health of our whole country.

The details are still unfolding and there are still unanswered questions, but what we do know is that there were warning signs and that the shooter had received mental health treatment. As we continue the national discussion about what we can do to prevent further tragedies, we need to be willing to engage in an honest conversation about what allowed this young man to fall through the cracks, and the broader personal and societal factors that may have fueled his actions.  

It is paramount for us to ensure the safety and well-being of our children and youth, and to remember that 1 in 5 people, potentially hundreds of students in a high school, have or will experience a mental illness.  We need to be very careful that the response to these tragedies by the media and others does not discourage students from seeking help.  

Where do we go from here? 
There are steps we can take now to educate and intervene early to break down barriers of understanding, and put an end to the stigma that often prevents people from getting the help they so desperately need. NAMI Wisconsin advocates can take action by contacting their members of Congress, state and local leaders and asking them to: 

  1. Increase mental health awareness and availability of counselors in schools.Students should be encouraged to seek help for themselves or a friend. School based mental health has also proven extremely effective in engaging students who would not otherwise seek help. Some states have made significant investments in school based mental health and more needs to be done.
  2. Train school staff, administrators, parents and youth, and provide the tools necessary to have conversations about the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions and where they can turn to for help. Far too often, when families are most in need, there isn't a clear pathway to getting help.
  3. Develop a comprehensive response program for youth who have demonstrated behavioral issues including involving family and mental health providers. Take steps to avoid expelling and suspending students as this only exacerbates the situation. 
  4. Increase the ability of the mental health system to be proactive in reaching out to youth, particularly those with the most serious conditions. Young people in distress will not seek help so there needs to be mobile outreach responses that are funded and easily available. This requires sustained and expanded funding for coverage for mental health, not cuts. 

Speak Up About Gun Violence! 
Another part of the conversation that cannot be ignored is acting on common sense approaches to ending gun violence such as gun violence prevention restraining orders, which can allow for the removal of guns from people who may pose a risk of violence to themselves and others. While the relationship between mental illness and gun violence is very low, we need reasonable options, including making it possible for law enforcement to act on credible community and family concerns in circumstances where people are at high-risk.

We all want an end to these horrific acts of violence. To achieve this, we need to understand the full picture of what is really driving increased violence and take sensible steps. Only then can we find meaningful solutions to protecting our children and communities.

If you are seeking additional support after the Parkland School Shooting, please don't hesitate to contact the NAMI Wisconsin office at (608) 268-6000 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. 

Rethinking What Matters: Focusing on Positivity

Even though there are countless things to be thankful for, it can be easy to focus on the negative aspects of life and what goes wrong over the blessings. Irritants and problems seem to blare in our faces and bring down our moods, while the positives fade into the background.

However, much of this life-view is a mindset. Granted, mental illness can make positive thoughts and mindset very difficult, but a key step to recovery includes focusing on what we are thankful for and trying to find the good amongst the bad. Numerous studies have shown that those who keep a gratitude diary or a positivity journal experience, overall, less depressive symptoms and perceived stress than those who do not.

One way to begin opposing negative thoughts is to write them down and to challenge yourself to find a positive counter-thought to change it. Expressing gratitude and brainstorming potential solutions (if there is a problem/issue) are good ways to find positivity. An example could be: Negative- I am so busy at work! I never have enough time to get everything done and am always bogged down! Positive- I am thankful to have a job and a way to earn income. I will make myself a schedule to organize my time and plan my responsibilities.

Of course, it may not always be possible to find a positive alternative to a negative, such as if a loved one passes away suddenly or there are unescapable financial burdens. But these are the times when, though we may not see a positive outcome at the time, we grow and become stronger through our struggle. It may be very uncomfortable, sometimes even painful, to grow and persist through these hard times, but positives develop from them, even if the only positive is that we showed ourselves that we could make it through.

So today, set aside some time to challenge the negatives in your life. You may surprise yourself with how encouraged it makes you feel!

Written by Heather Ehnert, Communications & Advocacy Intern

Loving and Supporting a Significant Other with Mental Illness

Here we are in the month of February, a.k.a. the month of love!

Couples devote extra time and attention to each other through giving gifts, going out somewhere special, and spending quality time with one another, particularly on Valentine’s Day. However, having a partner with a mental illness, or being that partner, requires love in a way that can look very different from chocolates and teddy bears on one set day.   

As an individual living with depression and a form of OCD called trichotillomania, I know what it’s like to have really hard mental health days. There are times when I can’t get out of bed because my dark thoughts pull me to it and don’t let me leave, or times when I pull out all of my eyelashes and my self-esteem plummets, often also leading to dark thoughts. Times like these can be insufferable, but with support from my significant other, by and large, they are made bearable.

For someone with mental illness, love and support can mean simply sitting next to them in silence, or laying with them in bed during a hard time. It can be making them food if you know they are struggling to eat regularly on their own, or making sure they are brushing their teeth and showering. It can also be a quiet “I love you,” “you’re amazing!” or “I’m proud of you”. On harder days, it can be holding them while they weep or break down in panic. Love and support can also be everyday care, like making them lunch or taking care of some of their errands.

Yet, even when my partner makes it clear through his words and actions that he cares about me, my mental illness makes me worry that one day, he’s going to realize that me and my conditions are too much to handle, or that he’s giving more than he is getting, and decide to leave me. My thoughts tell me that I am not “normal,” my brain is not “normal,” so I am constantly questioning whether my partner deserves someone who doesn’t require so much “work”.

But I have to remind myself that although my mental illness requires certain care and treatment, it does not define me. I am still worthy of love. I am a kind, loving, goofy person who is able to show extra compassion and grace to my partner when he’s having a bad day, because I know what it’s like to really be low. I take extreme care to know he’s loved and that I am there for him, because I know he is always there for me. Relationships are a two-way street, and mental illness does not put a road block in one or both lanes- just be sure to continue reaching over to the other side.

If you are seeking additional support, please do not hesitate to reach out to the NAMI Wisconsin at (608) 268-6000. 

Written by Heather Ehnert, Communications & Advocacy Intern

Everyday Ways to Talk about Mental Health

Living with a mental health condition can present many challenges, such as scheduling and attending appointments with psychiatrists and therapists, getting the right medication, and facing the everyday difficulties of one’s affected thinking, mood, or behavior. Talking about your life with a mental illness with others can be an additional, entirely new challenge in itself. You may be worried that others will think less of you for having a mental illness, or that you will lose friends and family due to your condition being a burden. These are valid concerns, but it is important to remember that talking about your mental health provides an opportunity for others to care for you and provide support. It also helps inform others and break down stigmas that surround mental illness.

Here are some everyday ways to talk about your mental health, helping to change the stigmas that may surround what it means to have a mental illness:

  • If someone asks why you missed an event, be honest and tell them it was because of a therapy appointment, that you decided to stay home to take care of yourself instead, or that you did not feel mentally healthy enough to attend at that time. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but many people have likely been in similar situations but were too afraid of what others would think if they told the truth about their mental health. There is nothing to be ashamed of in having a mental health condition or in seeking care!
  • Our society tends to idolize the concept of “always being busy”. This can be difficult to look past, but telling others that you schedule time in your week to do nothing but relax and watch Netflix at home can be a great way to talk about mental health! Knowing that you need downtime because it helps prevent episodes of depression, anxiety, or OCD, etc. is a strength, not a weakness. You are taking time to care for yourself, and it is good for others to know that. Oftentimes, when someone else is open about allowing themselves time to relax, others feel that it’s okay for them to do the same.
  • Whether you are a high school or college student or a full-time employee, try to be open about your mental health and its state of wellness with your teachers or boss. These are the people you need to talk to about missing class or work for mental health related reasons, so it is best that they know you aren’t “skipping out” on your responsibilities, but rather, caring for yourself. This may mean notifying them that you need to stay home for a mental health day, or that you may need an extension on a project due to a challenging time with your illness. Not only will they be able to trust your integrity, but the people in these authority positions can often provide resources for assistance when dealing with a condition.

If you are seeking additional support, please do not hesitate to reach out to the NAMI Wisconsin at (608) 268-6000. 

Written by Heather Ehnert, Communications & Advocacy Intern

Gratitude for Your Mental Health

Happy Thanksgiving! This holiday is the perfect reason for all of us to stop our busy lives and celebrate what we are most thankful for.

Truth be told, Thanksgiving is a great reminder that we should practice gratitude every day. Although gratitude is most commonly emphasized during the holiday season, research continually shows us that cultivating gratitude on a daily basis can contribute to overall psychological well-being.  

Gratitude is known to reduce many toxic emotions from your body, such as anger, jealousy, frustration, and regret. While eliminating these toxic feelings, gratitude highlights your positive emotions, like happiness, joy, and serenity.

In addition to these positive emotions, grateful people generally are likely to show more kindness to people around them. According to a 2012 study conducted by the University of Kentucky, individuals who express gratitude are less likely to seek ‘revenge’ against others.

Expressing gratitude not only helps with positive mental health, but also contributes to physical health. Individuals who frequently express gratitude are more likely to take care of their bodies through exercise and healthy eating. The same individual often find lower blood pressure and cholesterol, demonstrating the effects of positive psychology.

Some ways in which gratitude can contribute to positive mental health include: healthier relationships, increased levels of self-confidence, improved sleep patterns, a stronger sense of empathy & forgiveness, and a stronger determination for hope & recovery.

In the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, it’s hard to set time aside to practice gratitude each day. We recommend scheduling some of these practices into your daily schedule:

  1. Keep a gratitude journal
  2. Take notice of the little things in life
  3. Write thank you letters
  4. Focus on the positive
  5. Embrace your emotions
  6. Volunteer in your community
  7. Take a walk and focus on the things you are thankful for
  8. Thank the important people in your life
  9. Think of memories you are thankful for
  10. Say thank you, always.

During this holiday season, we challenge you to continue your gratitude through the rest of the coming year. Your body and mind will thank you!

From all of us at NAMI Wisconsin, we wish you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

Written by Jamie Gurgul, Communications & Events Director

Advocating During Mental Illness Awareness Week

Each year, millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental health condition. 

During the first full week of October, NAMI and participants across the country are raising awareness of mental illness. Each year, we fight stigma, provide support, educate the public, and advocate for equal care. Each year, the movement continues to grow stronger. 

We believe that mental health issues are important to address year-round, but highlighting them during #MIAW provides a time for people to come together and display the passion and strength of those working to improve the lives of the tens of millions of Americans affected by mental illness. 

Here are ten ways you can get involved and show your support during Mental Illness Awareness Week: 

  1. Connect with your local affiliate. Find out if they are hosting a community event in honor of MIAW and ask how you can get involved. You can find your closest NAMI affiliate here
  2. Call your state representatives. Let them know it’s Mental Illness Awareness Week. Ask them what they’re doing to in the legislature to promote a better mental health system in Wisconsin. Be sure to thank them for their efforts. You can find out who represents you by typing your address here.  
  3. Host a community forum. Invite community leaders such as teachers, elected officials and faith leaders to partake in a mental health forum hosted at your local community center. One of the best ways to spread awareness is through one-on-one experiences. 
  4. Wear lime green. Be bold. Grab attention and send a message without saying a word. Show your support by wearing lime green, the official color representative of mental illness. You can find NAMI gear at the NAMI Store
  5. Post on social media. Whether you Tweet or Facebook, social media connects thousands of people to your cause. Let people know that the first week of October is Mental Illness Awareness Week by using #FutureOfMentalHealth.
  6. Share your story. Sharing your story and creating safe spaces for others to do the same is one of the most effective ways to eliminate stigma. 
  7. Start a dialogue. Ask your local affiliate about NAMI Wisconsin’s Whiteboard Project, an opportunity for the community to share why mental health matters to them. 
  8. Volunteer your time. NAMI affiliates are the heart and soul of our organization…and many are volunteers! Find a way to connect your skill set with a need at your local affiliate. 
  9. Educate. Politely raise mental health issues with elected officials, local leaders, teachers and colleagues. Find the facts here
  10. Be present. One of the best gifts you can give a person is a listening ear. Let a loved one who is going through a hard time know you are there for them. 

Also-- don't forget to participate in NAMI Wisconsin's Whiteboard Project! By simple posting a selfie on your social media feeds, you can create dialogue and end stigma surrounding mental illness. Click here to learn more about the Whiteboard Project. 

Community Involvement: Building Blocks for the Next Generation

NAMI Wisconsin is gearing up for our first ever young professional’s event, Advocates of Tomorrow. The event will take place on Thursday, October 26th in Madison, WI and will bring together a diverse group of individuals interested in adding their voice to the nonprofit sector. This free event will provide attendees with information about how to get involved with NAMI Wisconsin and many other nonprofit organizations. With the spirit of youth in mind, we’ve compiled the top five reasons to start early building a foundation for community involvement.

1. Skill Building
Community involvement allows youth to gain valuable, hands on skills that they may not get the opportunity to explore within a classroom setting. Working collaboratively as a group or independently on a specified task helps to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. Community involvement may also offer opportunities for public speaking, writing, networking, mock interviewing and expanding one’s knowledge of technology.

2. Resume Building
These skills can be transferable to a resume when the time comes to enter the workforce. Today’s job market is competitive and finding paid employment can be especially challenging for youth who have no prior experience. Skills obtained from working closely on a project in the community are not only desired by employers, but highly sought out. An added bonus is being able to use a former boss or team leader as a reference in an interview.

3. Building Life Skills
Whether one is giving their time to a cause or helping out during an event or specific project, there is the opportunity for success and failure. It is in these experiences that youth develop resiliency, patience, work ethic, responsibility and the gratification of a job well done, just to name a few. Development of life skills at a young age helps to create a strong foundation for greater hurdles ahead, both in professional and personal relationships. 

4. Relationship Building
Getting involved in one’s community not only allows young professionals to connect with one another, but also people of all different ages and backgrounds. Just as young professionals learn from their elders, folks with years of experience working in the community have the opportunity to gain fresh perspectives and new ideas from younger generations.

5. Building a Sense of Belonging
The most valuable asset that can be gained from community involvement is the sense of belonging. The ability to say “I’m a part of something. I have a purpose. I make a difference” is simply irreplaceable.

For more information about the Advocates of Tomorrow event, please click here. You can also find us on Facebook or contact Jamie Gurgul, the Communications & Events Director at: 608-268-6000 or

Written by Crystal Hester, NAMI Wisconsin's Public Policy & Advocacy Director

The Torch in the Tunnel: How Peer Resources Can Empower

We’re here for a reason. I believe a bit of the reason is to throw little torches out to lead people through the dark.
— Whoopi Goldberg

Being part of the peer led movement to advocate for mental health services has given me valuable insight and vision on the path to my own recovery. At times this path has seemed rather dark and unlit; both in a figurative sense when, for example, depression has made my world seem distant and hard to identify with and in a literal sense when needed, quality healthcare was out of reach and difficult to find in my locale. 

These conditions were frustrating to say the least and also contributed towards my desire to somehow escape from my mental health disorder and history of trauma. For some time, I had been striving to remove what had become a core piece of my identity; one that was defined by my disorders and traumatic experiences. This dance with stigma and this process of trying to remove socially constructed labels are experiences that can be especially pronounced for those with lived experience and traumatic histories and can further hinder access to healthcare for those in need.

Today I consider myself doing well in recovery and this path is not so dark. I still experience some of the symptoms associated with my diagnoses, but I am more stable and independent of medication than I have been since experiencing the major traumas in my life. Along with a series of fortunate events and circumstances following my misfortunes, I have been able to gather a solid set of recovery supports through connection with friends and peers. 

Among these supports, the most valuable have proven to be knowing when and how to take care of myself, remaining engaged in the advocacy movement for quality mental health care, and being in a supportive community of peers and allies to those with mental health and substance use disorders. I have found this latter support to be especially available through NAMI Wisconsin’s Consumer Council (NWCC) and Policy and Advocacy Committee as well as the Recovery Implementation Task Force. Being part of these peer- and advocate-led environments where I can express myself, talk about my lived experience, and seek advice and support has helped me define myself on my own terms and not the ones associated with stigma and society’s negative labels. Moreover, these supports have served as the “little torches” to light my path when it gets dark, helping me to see with clarity the support around me. They have provided me with a vehicle to transform my lived experience intoa story of empowerment through directed advocacy efforts and a means to stay engaged while, at the same time, allowing me to remain connected and aware of what I have been through and I am up against. 

When I think back to some of my more dark days, it would have been difficult for me to imagine that I would someday be both proud to be defined by my trauma and my mental health condition and that I could be involved in efforts that could make a difference and improve care for others with similar experiences and diagnoses. Though, through my experiences I have come to understand that even if things do get dark again, there is light at the end of the tunnel and that there are others along the way to throw the torches to light the way.

So with that said I present a challenge to you to those doing well in recovery and looking for an active and supportive peer environment: consider joining the NWCC. If you would like to enhance the quality of life for people affected by mental illness and are driven by unity, self-determination, empowerment, and inclusion then the NWCC may be right for you. We work together to provide opportunities to develop our skills as a leaders by enhancing NAMI Wisconsin's efforts toward supporting recovery and creating meaningful opportunities for participation for all NAMI Wisconsin consumers and by providing meaningful input to NAMI Wisconsin by serving on an advisory committee to the Board of Directors.

If you would like learn more about the NWCC and it’s activities, please reach out to the NWCC Chair, Chris Keenan at or NAMI Wisconsin’s Executive Director, Nate Schorr at 608-268-6000.

Written by Chris Keenan, NAMI Wisconsin's NWCC Chair and Board Member

Back to School: A Time to Focus on Youth Mental Health

It’s already August?! For parents and youth, August means a time to prep for back to school festivities, such as buying supplies, registering for classes, and joining new extracurricular activities. Going back to school after a long summer break can be extremely overwhelming for many students. The idea of having a new schedule, with new subjects and new classmates can seem like a lot all at once.

During this time of intense transition, it is crucial that parents can identify potential signs of mental illness in their children. Research shows that 1 in 5 youth ages 14-24 years-old are living with a serious mental illness. Unfortunately, the average delay between onset of symptoms and intervention is still about 8-10 years.

Over 50% of students living with mental illness dropout of high school. This is often due to the fact that they were not supported with proper treatment and medications when they needed it most. As with any health condition, it’s so important that parents can identify symptoms and behaviors that might often be connected to a mental illness before it gets to this point.

Some warning signs might include:

  • Feeling very sad of withdrawn for more than 2 weeks (e.g. crying regularly, feeling fatigued, feeling unmotivated)
  • Trying to harm or kill oneself or making plans to do so

  • Out-of-control, risk-taking behaviors that can cause harm to self or others

  • Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart, physical discomfort, or fast breathing

  • Not eating, throwing up or using laxatives to lose weight; significant weight loss or gain.

  • Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships

  • Substance use

  • Drastic changes in behavior, personality, or sleeping habits

  • Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still that can lead to failure in school

  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities like hanging out with friends or going to classes.

If your child is experiencing these symptom, please remember that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Be sure to talk to your pediatrician, get a referral to a mental health specialist, work with your child’s school, connect with other families, and reach out to your local NAMI. Many NAMI affiliates offer a variety of programs that can be helpful to you and your family during this stressful time.

If you would like to bring mental health awareness to a school near you, we recommend that you learn about Raise Your Voice. This is a NAMI Wisconsin club that is dedicated to increasing mental illness awareness, inspiring advocacy, and promoting acceptance. To learn more about how to get involved in this initiative, please click here.

Written by Jamie Gurgul, NAMI Wisconsin's Communications & Events Director

Experts By Experience: NAMI Provider

This fall, NAMI Wisconsin is excited to bringing the NAMI Provider program back to Wisconsin!

Wisconsin was one of the early roll-out states of the Provider Education Program when it was originally developed. Dr. Joyce Burland, PhD, the author of NAMI’s evidence-based Family-to-Family education program developed the Provider program to bring the ‘experience of mental illness’ to health providers. Dr. Burland, a psychologist, and a parent and sister of an individual living with schizophrenia, developed and authored the course.  

The magic of NAMI is the depth of knowledge and understanding that all our trainers at every level (national, state and local) bring to the training experience from the perspective of lived experience. Teaching the NAMI Provider Program puts us in the role of “experts of our own experience”.  As a mental health professional and a person living well in Recovery I am passionate about this program.  The 3-5 person teaching team consists of 1-2 family members, 1-2 individuals living well in Recovery and a mental health professional who is a family member or living well in Recovery.  

NAMI Provider is a unique program in that at the time that it was developed all NAMI’s education programs were focused on the individuals that we serve, persons living with mental health conditions and their family members.  We were, for lack of better terminology, teaching “our own folks”.  NAMI Provider took our peer approach a step further.  NAMI Provider is taught to people who may or may not have lived experience with mental illness, but have a role in providing services to individuals with mental health conditions and their families.  The mental health professional role on the teaching team is a peer to the providers taking the course, they also share a common lived experience, that of provider.  The NAMI Provider program honors the role of the provider by having a peer representative on the teaching team. This also offers the participants the opportunity to see mental health conditions from all three perspectives (families, individuals with mental health conditions and providers) as each course topic is covered. There is no role on the teaching that is more valued than another and the team works together as experts in their own experience, sharing their own stories and raising awareness.  During the 5 sessions, which can be done in a variety of formats, healthcare staff are:  introduced to the emotional stages people affected by mental illness experience on the journey to recovery, gain an understanding of ,and empathy for, the individuals lived experience during treatment and encouraged to promote collaboration between individuals, families and providers to achieve the best level of recovery possible.

NAMI Provider is typically attended by: therapists/counselors, Social Workers, Nurses, Direct Care Workers, Psychologists and Administrative Staff who have direct contact with people affected by mental illness (in person or by telephone).  The program has also been offered to other professional groups who work with those affected by mental illness such as:  Law Enforcement personnel, Judges and Court staff, District Attorneys and office staff and Clergy.

The program is presented in 5 sessions organized into short lectures, discussions and group exercises.  The 5 sessions are 2.5 hours in length and can presented one session per week for five weeks or one session per day for five days or all 5 sessions in a two-day period (two or three per day).

The training for NAMI Provider Teachers is an intensive 2-day training, typically offered on a weekend.  If you are an “expert” in your own experience and are ready to share your story with mental health service providers, NAMI Provider may be the program for you.  Contact your local NAMI affiliate or NAMI Wisconsin for more information about NAMI Provider.

Written by: Luann Simpson, MSW, CPS, NAMI Provider State Trainer