NAMI Northern Nevada and Collaboration
by Jerry O'Brien, President
Hello NAMI Northern Nevada!
There is a new volunteer group that has sprung up in recent years called PAN, or Peer Alliance of Nevada. For some time, I was not sure how to understand them. I worried that they would compete with NAMI Northern Nevada for membership and in their message. As a biology student, many years ago, I seemed to remember that in direct competitions, as between two different species of paramecia, if there is one opponent that is just slightly more competitive than the other, it will then come to dominate and edge the other out in a very short time. I wondered if this is what was going to happen with PAN and NAMI in Nevada. I became afraid and mistrustful.
I have been with NAMI for many years. When I came to Nevada to live with my parents, I was struggling with my mental illness but NAMI was there to help me in the form of support groups. Later, I came to volunteer with NAMI and I found a place where I could learn new skills like writing newsletter articles and grant writing. I grew in confidence and as a person. Eventually, I became President of NAMI Northern Nevada. I wanted to bring NAMI to more people affected with mental illness and their family members and to have them know the belonging that I felt.
As I see it, NAMI is an organization with a noble mission. We educate the public – especially peers, family members, police officers and decision makers – on the nature of mental illnesses. NAMI programs demystify brain disorders, helping people understand what they are going through, what they can expect for the future and that recovery and a good life is possible even for people with mental illness. Beyond that, NAMI encourages the formation of the coping and communication skills that protect relationships between family members, loved ones and people with mental illness. NAMI also brings people together in mutual support, helping them help each other.
Still, aside from NAMI, there were a handful of people working in peer support who were fed up with the way their peers were being treated when receiving services. They reached out to a technical assistance center called Peerlink of Oregon and asked for help in developing a peer network in Nevada. Trainings were held featuring Robyn Priest and Donita Diamata, telling their stories of recovery from mental illness. They stressed peer support and growing networks of people across the world standing together in advocacy. They also advanced the idea that some people could live without medication and some even recover completely from their illnesses. Out of these trainings, and much hard work by those involved, came a new organization called Peer Alliance of Nevada.
For some time, many of us in NAMI Northern Nevada were unsure what to think of the new group. Their apparent stance on taking or not taking medications was troubling to many of us. Going off of medications can be achieved in a few cases of which I was aware, but I thought that the message was a bit dangerous. There are so many people who stop taking their meds when they come into better health, only to relapse and have their symptoms return. It seemed irresponsible to preach such a message, but here was PAN doing just that.
Still, there was another message that kept me from complaining, for the most part. At the beginning of each Connection support group meeting is read the Principles of Support, one of which affirms “We aim for better coping skills”. In my mind, this means that NAMI does not push medications on anyone as the only solution to issues of mental illness. Yes, there are many of us who are on meds, but that is only a part of the larger picture. NAMI does not endorse any pharmaceutical product, but encourages the formation of coping skills that will sustain us through our mental health difficulties. These can be in the form of mindfulness, meditation, exercise and spirituality, among others.
In my personal experience, medication can work wonders in relieving symptoms, but it is still up to the individual to learn a better lifestyle supportive of mental health. I have also known people who, over the course of their lifetimes have been able to find their way to independence from medications. I might not choose to follow this path but I recognize it as a possibility. Over time I have come to recognize that PAN does not urge people to stop medications per se, but that they advocate for choice, personal responsibility and individual paths to recovery, something with which I can agree and, I think, so can the NAMI organization at large.
Over the last few years I have seen the seed that Robyn and Donita planted grow into a flourishing organization. I also witnessed Camille Jones’ leadership and eagerness to build an alliance with NAMI Northern Nevada. There have been a few gaffes as we were coming to know each other as organizations, but in many cases they seemed to have resolved themselves. Still, I felt mistrust. Our organizations seemed to be in competition with each other and I feared that one of us might not survive the experience. Then I remembered a bit more of my education in biology.
Think of vegetation in Nevada. Here in Reno, I think that I can say that sage dominates the landscape, probably because it is the most competitive kind of plant life that can survive in this area of the Nevada climate. Then there are the pine trees that live at higher altitudes. Trees grow there in part because they have access to the water, snow and rain, falling there in the colder months. Both kinds of vegetation do very well in their own areas, but their competition is not as direct as it could be. They share the landscape and coexist.
So I believe that it can be with PAN. NAMI’s mission is not the same as PAN’s. We each have our own attraction for membership is mental health circles. PAN primarily embraces peers, people living with mental illness, and they believe that a person’s own lived experience is the front door to recovery. Their mission is to promote self-determination through peer support, community education, advocacy and empowerment. PAN advocates for patients’ rights, but also works within the system to makes changes in services that are based on wellness and recovery. They are an organization run by peers for peers, standing together in numbers, making individual voices be heard.
NAMI, on the other hand, strives to improve the quality of life for people living with mental illness through quality education programs and support groups as well as large and small scale works of advocacy. NAMI seeks its membership from many sources, including family members, law enforcement and mental health professionals among others. We work within the system, taking part in Crisis Intervention training for police officers, coaching individuals going through Mental Health Court and working with legislators and decision makers at every level. At all times we seek to erase the stigma of mental illness and to promote positive change for people with mental illness and their families.
There is much overlap between the two groups in mission and membership, but I do not believe that there is any need for struggle between them. There are some points of philosophy on which we might never agree. Still, when we need support, as when the legislature comes back into session, I hope we can count on PAN to show up in numbers. There are NAMI people and there are PAN people. There are also many people who belong to both NAMI and PAN. Together when we need to be, we can reach greater audiences and accomplish more than we could ever do separately.
Gerald O’Brien, President
NAMI Northern Nevada