Mental Health Group Draws People Out of the Shadows

Mental Health Group Draws People Out of the Shadows

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SAN FRANCISCO – It took LaVaughn King several years to understand what was going through the mind of someone she described as “a well-loved family member,” who, at 16, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

He had been roughed up by gang members near the Sunnydale Housing Project here in the city. Before long, the young man’s “PTSD turned into schizoaffective disorder,” she said, which made it even more difficult for her to connect with the young man, now 28.

It was only when King was halfway through the 12-week Family-to-Family education program offered by the San Francisco chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that she had what she describes as “an aha-moment.”

“I understood what he was going through,” said King, now a trained facilitator herself in NAMI’s Family-to-Family program.

With that understanding, her bottled up anger began to dissipate.

“The anger had built up over the years because I felt helpless that I couldn’t do anything for him, that I had no magic formula to make his illness go away,” King said.

Like King, scores of people with mentally ill family members have benefited from NAMI’s Family-to-Family program, its peer-to-peer classes, as well as other programs the non-profit offers.

“We teach people how to cope and how to navigate mental illness,” said Dr. Gifford Boyce-Smith, president of NAMI’s San Francisco board of directors, whose own son suffered from mental illness that led him to jump to his death from a hotel room in China. Boyce-Smith said he got involved with NAMI “to make sure his (son’s) life was not in vain.”

The nation’s largest grassroots mental health advocacy organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness, NAMI has more than 1,100 affiliates across the United States, including seven in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Each affiliate is responsible for its own fundraising. The Bay Area affiliates, like other NAMI affiliates nationwide, raise most of their money through their annual NAMI walk. The San Francisco chapter raised about $50,000 at this year’s walk in May, said NAMI San Francisco program manager Jeong Shin.

Mental illness is a far more common phenomenon than most people suspect. It is estimated that one in four people in the United States has some form of it.

NAMI’s membership includes families, friends and people living with such mental disorders as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive behavior, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bleak as the outcome for mental illness might appear when it strikes a family member, it is imminently treatable, allowing people to live “totally normal lives,” Boyce-Smith asserted.

The stigma associated with it stems from “our not seeing it as a brain disorder, as a medical condition,” he said, likening the battle against the stigma to overall acceptance of gays and those with HIV.

“If we could stop the split between medical and mental condition, we would start to open up our hearts and minds, ears and eyes,” he said.

It’s not easy for a layperson to detect it, and even if diagnosed, to accept it.

Wanda Materre’s nephew is a case in point. His unusual behavior at age 14 – sinking into depression for no apparent reason, frequent anger spells and leaving home for days without informing anyone – led Materre’s older sister to believe that her son simply had “behavioral problems” that would go away.

Even after he was diagnosed with bipolar four years later, he and his mother refused to believe it. As a result, he didn’t take the prescribed medications at home. 

The young man was forced to go on medication, however, when he got into trouble with the law and landed in jail. But that stopped soon after he was released.

Now 34, married, and a father himself, the man is still refusing to take his medications.

“If only (his wife) would enroll in Family-to-Family, she would know how to deal with his illness and what to do in a crisis situation,” said Materre, who along with King, facilitates Family-to-Family programs in a number of locations in the Bay Area. Both women also hold full-time jobs at the city’s Community Behavioral Health Services agency.

It’s a diverse population they serve through the program, but their core clients at the Bayview Hunters Point “Healing Circle” classes are African American like themselves.

NAMI facilitator Anita Madrigal holds her Family-to-Family classes in Spanish at the Mission Mental Health Facility on Mission Avenue here in the city. Nearly all of her clients are immigrants from Central and South America, she said.

Although Madrigal didn’t come into the NAMI fold through the traditional route -- as a caregiver to someone who was mentally ill – her job experience at the San Francisco County Community Behavioral Health Services agency and her 25 years of experience as a volunteer at the American Red Cross, helped her to hit the ground running at NAMI after her training as a facilitator.

Soon after the San Bruno gas explosion last year, there was a spike in the number of Latino clients at her meetings, many of them grieving over the loss of “a life that used to be,” Madrigal said, noting: “They were all suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which could lead to long-term mental illness if left untreated.”

NAMI refers its Chinese clients to the Chinese Family Alliance of San Francisco, where mental health professionals hold classes in Cantonese and Mandarin.

Over the last couple of years, NAMI volunteers statewide have been fielding calls from people who have lost their homes or jobs. Among them are Asians, who are in crisis, noted Materre.

NAMI facilitators do outreach in churches, doctors’ offices and community-based offices.

“We have to give the tools to people to understand mental illness,” King said, adding: “If I hadn’t been given the tools by NAMI, my family member would have been locked up somewhere with his organic brain disorder.”