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The Importance of Support when Dealing with a Mental Illness – An Interview With Anne Fischer, Executive Director of NAMI San Francisco

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When a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness, this can be devastating to families. How will you help them? How will you cope? What does this mean for your family? These questions and more run through your mind and you feel lost and helpless. However there is help, The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) offers a variety of programs to help support those dealing with Mental Illness. NAMI provides advocacy, research, support and education about serious mental illness. Its members include public officials, politicians, members of faith communities, consumers, families and friends of people living with mental illnesses, mental health providers, students, educators, law enforcement and other concerned citizens.

I interviewed with Anne Fischer, Executive Director of NAMI San Francisco to get her perspective on living with mental illness. As a parent and a professional, she was able to give me a personal perspective. I asked her what happens when someone is newly diagnosed, what happens next.

Anne: They can be referred to us through word of mouth or by the doctor or psychiatrist who diagnosed them. This can be a very scary time and usually the first point of contact is through our support groups. We have 2 support groups per week that are run by peers and family members. We find this is huge for new families as they get to connect up with people that are walking the same road as they are and it ends up being a very comfortable place to share. There is such a stigma around mental illness, no one wants to talk about it, so having people that you can talk to is huge. After the support groups, we usually try to get them to sign up for our Family to Family class. This is a 12 week class where they discuss many of the issues they will be dealing with such as HIPPA Laws, planning for the future etc. Many people do not get diagnosed until after they turn 18 years old which makes it even more difficult for families to navigate the system. Our Family to Family class helps with this.

Do you have any new programs?

Anne:   We are just starting a Peer to Peer support program where we match people that are in the hospital with mentors. We are excited about this program since many people are first diagnosed when they are adults, this helps us get help to them right away. Because there is such a stigma attached to mental illness, it is harder to get to them after they leave the hospital. In fact many people end up on the streets and their family and friends don’t know how to locate them. So this program is huge allowing them to receive help and assistance before they leave the hospital.

What are some of the biggest issues facing those living with Mental illness?

Anne: They need to know about the HIPPA Laws. Many families don’t even know when their adult has been admitted to the hospital. Also getting things in place such as trusts, so that they are taken care of after their support has passed on. Some other things we are starting are Prevention and Early Intervention programs, Education/Awareness events. We are also launching a program to go into High Schools around Stigma reduction and education.