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Last month, some people worried about political wrangling over Thanksgiving turkey, but there are worse things. Just before the holiday, Kevin Keeler girded himself for a call from a nephew, who had serious mental health issues, on and off, for years. If the nephew asked to come to the big family Thanksgiving dinner, Keeler knew he would have to say “no.”
“He’s unsafe to us and the other family members,” Keeler said.
Thankfully, Keeler has the tools to deal with tough situations like that. He’s the president of the Lansing chapter of NAMI, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Keeler, NAMI Lansing chapter Vice President Katreva Bisbee and about 35 volunteers have all been there themselves — they are all either in recovery or have a loved one with a mental illness. They leverage that experience to try to fill a widening gap in medical care.
This winter, NAMI Lansing is operating from a new set of offices, donated by McLaren Greater Lansing earlier this year. The new digs, graced with office-y cubicles, plenty of sunlight and fresh brochures from the national NAMI advocacy group, will be a game changer for the local chapter, just when the need for mental health support is spiking upward.
“We were nomads,” Keeler said. Volunteers worked out of basements, garages or the trunk of their cars. Board meetings were held at Panera Bread or, if space was available, the Ingham County Health Dept. John Patterson, a facilities administrator for McLaren Greater Lansing, was glad to help.
“They had stuff in my garage, your garage, all over,” Patterson said. “This gives them a stable space to build their programs.”
Patterson said there’s a significant shortage of mental health resources in the tri-county area, and that makes NAMI a welcome presence at the McLaren Greater Lansing campus on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“We have patients who come to the E.R. needing mental health treatment and we struggle to find a psychiatric hospital for them,” Patterson said. Sometimes they have to be held at the hospital for two or three days.
“For the families standing around, wondering what to do — NAMI knows exactly what they need and how they can get help,” Patterson said.
NAMI, a national advocacy organization, has dozens of state and local affiliates. The volunteers don’t make diagnoses or treat people, but they help in many other ways.
Most of all, Keeler and his cohort fight the persistent prejudice that people with mental illness can, and should, somehow bootstrap their way out of trouble.
“We understand that mental illness is a brain disorder,” Keeler said. “We totally understand the medical concept.”
Classes and support groups surround people in need of help with others who are going through the same thing.
“The problem with this illness is that everybody thinks they’re unique, alone,” Keeler said.
“People see on TV or in the movies, they’re going to end up in a straitjacket in a white room,” Beebe said. “We have volunteers who have gotten married, had kids and have a productive life. We help to give them that hope.”
It’s not just about people who are in recovery. Family members and friends are also in dire need of support.
“How people deal with it can vary,” Beebe said. “We need to let them know, if you’re a faith-based person, we can’t just pray everything away. You may need some prayer in combination with medication, therapy and support groups.”
For family members grappling with the diagnosis of a loved one, the stages are as predictable as the stages of grief.
“First, they freak out,” Keeler said. “It’s a catastrophe and they go into blaming each other, the family and Community Mental Health — if only they gave the right medication and so on,” he said.
That’s when many people contact NAMI by phone or through the web site.
When Keeler was a teenager, one of his brothers took his own life after a series of substance abuse and depression problems.
“Back then, I wasn’t really interested in helping him, because I didn’t know how, it was scary and I ran the other way,” he said.
Keeler’s younger brother still suffers from schizophrenia. It took Keeler years to come to grips with that reality and realize there are ways he can help.
“To me, he was just annoying and he wasn’t trying hard enough, until I began to understand that he had a brain disorder and he wasn’t doing this stuff on purpose,” Keeler said.
Dealing with the nephew who wanted to horn in on Thanksgiving gave Keeler more experience he could share in peer-to-peer groups.
“We have family members come in and tell us they are literally being held hostage by a family member with mental health issues,” Keeler said.
But it’s OK to set boundaries and “disengage” from a mentally ill family member, when it’s necessary, without breaking ties completely, Keeler said.
For patients and families, crippling guilt is often a barrier to healing.
“People go, ‘if your family had just sent you to a Catholic school, or given you more discipline, you would have turned out better,’” Keeler said. “We have mothers who come in here, wracked with guilt, because they think something they did created that mental illness. It’s a big issue because society bought into that.”
Beebe became interested in joining up with NAMI while supporting her mother, who was diagnosed with a mental illness and went through several traumatic phases of denial, anger, and blame.
“At some point you have to come to terms with the fact that this is happening,” Beebe said. “With her it took time. She had a lot of questions. Why is this happening? How did it happen?’” The new offices will help the NAMI board and volunteers organize a wide range of programs, from weekly classes and support group meetings to yearly events such as an annual fundraising walk, open houses and a “Healing Through Art” show spotlighting the work of people in recovery and their supporters.
All programs, support groups and classes are certified at the national level. Brochures and other resources reflect the latest information on suicide, depression, or other topics.
NAMI’s philosophy that we are all in this together is the antithesis to historic methods of treating mental illness.
“Back in the day, they’d throw everybody into institutions and leave them there,” Keeler said.
The most telling indicator of NAMI’s mission and approach is that in classes and support groups, people in recovery are pretty much indistinguishable from the volunteers. That, in itself, is a lesson for anyone who is freaking out over a mental illness diagnosis.
“If you’re involved in NAMI for any length of time, you eventually need a scorecard to tell who is on what side,” Keeler said.
If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, or have a loved one who has been diagnosed and needs support, go to NAMILansing.org or call (517) 484-3404.