Reaching out to the mentally ill

"No one should ever be defined by an illness," says Angela Adkins, executive director for DuPage NAMI, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

So, NAMI has been operating as a good Samaritan to the mentally ill and their families for 30 years.

"We provide support, education and advocacy for individuals and their families who are living with mental illness," Adkins explained.

Like the good Samaritan in the well-known parable, the people of NAMI see individuals not as their illness but instead as persons who need help. They offer a program called Mental Health First Aid, which gives families and the community a better understanding of mental illness, rather like "mental health CPR."

Adkins says, "When someone has become symptomatic, you can't rationalize or argue, but you cannot buy into it either. It doesn't work and can escalate the situation. Instead, you may say, 'I can see that you believe this, or this must be frightening, and you are upset and anxious about this.' The Mental Health First Aid training teaches how to calm them down and de-escalate the situation."

Qualities such as empathy, listening, being engaged - helping others realize they are not alone - are all "good Samaritan" qualities that are very helpful in breaking the isolation and shame many sufferers feel.

"Everyone has a right to their self-esteem," Adkins says.

"Young men, in particular, who suffer from mental illness, may be particularly reluctant about asking for help," Adkins said. "They may have friends who are progressing in their lives and jobs, while their own lives are a struggle. Many times they isolate themselves, self-medicate, drink alcohol, and turn to recreational drugs, which ends in a vicious cycle," she said.

Others just struggle day to day to fit in and become part of the community. There are ways to help break this cycle.

Adkins told me of a friend of hers. After graduating at the top of his class from an Ivy league college, he went to California and found a good job - everything was going so well. Then he began showing signs and symptoms of mental illness until he was finally unable to cope.

He was diagnosed with a serious mental illness and spent many months on his parents' couch, but did eventually find work. He often felt isolated from the mainstream and struggled to find his place.

He heard about NAMI DuPage and eventually became a valued member of the staff. Through work and support he found ways to break his isolation and return to work and social activities.

"We can all recognize each other's worth," Adkins said. "Go have a cup of coffee with someone, help break the isolation. They may turn you away, but persist."

Years ago, I had a good friend who suffered from mental illness. We often spent many hours talking about his life, and how this illness did not identify who he was. I always thought of him as a fellow child of God and knew if he could identify with that, he could find freedom.

One day, when he was feeling irrational and afraid, I went to see him. When I left to go, he slammed my leg with the car door and said he would keep pushing until my leg broke. His unfounded fears had turned into irrational anger.

I listened to him for quite a while. I empathized with his fear and anger and just shared ideas that I hoped would help him see himself as I saw him - divinely and unconditionally loved.

He eventually settled down and released my leg. We sat on the curb and talked and quietly prayed together. He returned to his motel room (he was homeless), and within a short time, he had a home and a more stable life.

Breaking the isolation and helping others see themselves in a new light is also the focus of NAMI's newest project in collaboration with the DuPage County Health Department: a 33,000-square-foot nonclinical Community Center.

Like the "inn" to which the good Samaritan brought his acquaintance, this will be a place of healing and progress for many individuals.

Scheduled to open in September, the center will eventually offer a coffee shop, print shop, and greenhouse, also training opportunities in office work, janitorial and warehouse employment.

This center is designed to offer therapeutic and practical social enterprises to make it self-sustaining.

"We want to provide services for those people who are literally living in their parents' basements, feeling alone and isolated. We want to help them engage with their full capacity. We provide the prep work and we have an employment specialist who will go out and act as a job coach and get them work."

The center will also have a "living room" - an alternative to an emergency room. This will be a place where those suffering may have their fears heard and speak with trained peers - individuals who have dealt with their own mental health issues and are doing well in their own recovery. They understand that they are more than their diagnosis, and can bring their own experience to help others.

• Thomas (Tim) Mitchinson is a self-syndicated columnist writing on the relationship between thought, spirituality and health, and trends in that field. He is also the media spokesman for Christian Science in Illinois. You can contact him at

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