We recently spoke with Michele Brooks, Executive Director, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Buffalo & Erie County.

Q: As a new year begins, why is it important to focus on our mental health?

The holidays can be a stressful time of the year; you may eat or drink more than usual, not exercise and have little time to relax. While we may have an ideal notion of what the holiday season should be, it can be a lonely time for many, or further strain already difficult family relations. Once the holidays are over, it is important to return to your routines, or begin new ones, that will benefit your mental as well as physical health.

Take care of your physical health. Exercise regularly. Eat well. Keep your doctor appointments and continue your medications. Take time to relax and rejuvenate.

Socializing and simply interacting with people on a regular basis may make the dark days of winter less dreary. Although you may not want to venture outside into the cold, experiencing nature is helpful to your mental health.

Helping others is often a mood enhancer. We may become more aware of what we can be grateful for in our own lives.

Do something you love every day, if even for a few minutes. Take a walk, read, or listen to music.

Religion and spirituality may also be effective in relieving stress. The role of ritual is itself very comforting.

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. What started as a small group of families gathered around a kitchen table in 1979 has blossomed into the nation’s leading voice on mental health.

Q: How does NAMI assist individuals and families with mental illness?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Buffalo & Erie County, a local affiliate of NAMI National, is a grassroots, non-profit organization formed in 1984. It is a membership organization, primarily run by volunteers, to improve the lives of those who are living with mental illness and to educate, support and advocate for the needs of families coping with their loved ones’ illness.

NAMI Buffalo provides many services, primarily to family members of individuals who live with mental illness. It offers a free 12-week Family-to-Family Education class led by trained teachers who have personal experience with a loved one. The class of 15—20 family members provides information on:

  • Types and characteristics of mental illnesses (e.g., bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety);
  • Medications;
  • Finding providers and accessing appropriate mental health care;
  • Ways to support and interact with a loved one
  • Identifying warning signs and proper steps to take;
  • Coping skills and self-care suggestions

This class also gives the participants the opportunity to learn from each other and to maintain hope.

Support groups, open to family members of those with mental illness, are held the third week of the month at two Western New York locations and are facilitated by trained NAMI volunteers with personal experience. These groups are very informal and provide a safe, confidential place for family members to share and learn in a supportive setting. 

The Helpline offers resources and general support but also assists with more complex problems such as dealing with an initial diagnosis of illness in a teen or young adult, homelessness, housing, hospitalization, incarceration, or a loved one’s refusal of treatment.

Family Education meetings, open to the public, are held the second Thursday of each month, featuring a guest speaker on a wide range of topics.

The Mind Matters: A Practical Guide to Services for People Living with Mental Illness in the Erie-Niagara Region is written and published for families coping with the challenges of mental illness and navigating the mental health system.  It offers practical tips and suggestions as well as a wide range of regional resources.

NAMI Buffalo also provides other member services such as a newsletter, e-blasts, advocacy at the local, state and national level and community projects such as collecting clothing and children’s gifts for in-patient or residential individuals.

Q: How can family members and friends help loved ones with mental illness?

Family, caregivers and friends are central, and essential, providers of day-to-day care and support for their family members. First and foremost, they can provide non-judgmental love and support. They can help navigate the health system to find providers, make appointments, and provide transportation, depending on the specific needs of the family member. Family members should educate themselves—take classes, read, ask questions of providers – to understand the illness, advocate for their loved one, support their recovery and recognize when they may need more help. Families are often the first to see when their loved one is “slipping” or declining. Family members should also take care of themselves, if even for a few minutes a day, in order to be a better caregiver.

Q: Why is it important to eliminate the stigma of mental illness?

The stigma of mental illness—a lack of understanding that mental illness is a brain disorder and should be treated like other illnesses – results in many negative consequences to people with mental illness. For these people, especially those with serious mental illness, stigma may result in housing discrimination, job discrimination, social isolation, legal problems and even incarceration.

It is also important to eliminate stigma as it may keep people from seeking early diagnosis or treatment, or any treatment at all.  People are afraid that others’ knowledge of their mental illness will affect their relationships with their family or friends. Stigma may also keep parents, fearful of rejection or isolation of their children by family and friends, from seeking treatment for them.

For more information on NAMI Buffalo, including class and event schedules, resources and a digital copy of The Mind Matters Guide, you may visit namibuffalony.org or by calling 716-226-6264.