Changing the Face of Mental Illness: NAMI Austin

Published On May 15, 2014 | May/June 2014
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NAMI Austin

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“NAMI taught me that there is hope. There is recovery.”

By Samantha Mendoza

Four years ago, Karen Ranus watched helplessly as her daughter began to collapse.

“On the surface, she looked like she had it all together,” Ranus said, as she pensively lowered her eyes to the desk in front of her, in her office on the fourth floor of Building 781, the Austin Medical Center. She reflected on the endless cycle of treatment specialists, therapy sessions and support groups that she and her daughter endured together — all of the terrifying, life-changing moments that led her to eventually find herself in this very room.

Indeed, Karen’s daughter did seem to have it all together. Sara Ranus, at the time a bright and ambitious 18-year-old, was the picture of college success. She was attending a small, private liberal arts university in Austin, Texas, where she was actively involved in leadership organizations, community service projects and study tours to Washington, D.C. But beneath the surface, Sara was secretly struggling with the onset of mental illness. Shortly after her arrival to college, she was diagnosed with depression, and she soon developed an eating disorder to cope with her anxiety.

“I felt like I was losing her,” says Ranus. “And I just felt so protective. There are so many misconceptions and stigmas associated to mental illness. I didn’t want people looking at my daughter differently or thinking badly about her because of her illness.”

But Karen and Sara found help in the Austin chapter of an organization called NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness. This non-profit organization, which has been in Austin for thirty years, is dedicated to offering individuals affected by mental illness the help and support they need throughout their treatment process. They offer a variety of counseling sessions and support groups, completely free of charge. One particular program, Family to Family, had a profound impact on Karen’s and Sara’s lives as they sought to understand how they could move forward now that the diagnosis of mental illness had changed everything.

“Family to Family is a class that’s made for family members: sons, daughters, parents, spouses, siblings, partners of someone who lives with a mental illness; it’s everyone coming together to help those they love,” says Ranus. “The class really covers the full spectrum of all of the different types of mental illness, what the medications and treatments need to be, and what the signs and symptoms are. It really made a huge difference in the way we addressed [Sara’s] illness.”

After completing the 12-program, Karen and Sara felt empowered to face the mental health issues that they previously had not known how to address. They left the program with a binder full of resources, phone numbers and information, all provided at no cost from NAMI, and they were able to develop a greater understanding of the illness that once caused them so much pain and uncertainty. Sara, now 22, is attending a local community college and is considering transferring back to a private university next year.

“NAMI taught me that there is hope,” says Ranus. “There is recovery.”

Although Karen’s and Sara’s story is empowering, it is not unique. They are just one of the hundreds of families whose lives have been changed by the programs offered by the Austin chapter of NAMI. This grassroots organization is committed to providing help and hope for individuals and families affected by mental illness through advocacy, education and support. The Austin chapter is growing rapidly, both in numbers and in esteem. It was named both the National NAMI Affiliate of the Year and the NAMI Texas Affiliate of the Year for 2013. Although NAMI Austin had been entirely grassroots and volunteer-based up to that point, its growth inspired the organization to begin hiring staff at the beginning of this year, including its first-ever Executive Director: Karen Ranus.

After her positive and life-affirming experience with NAMI Austin, Ranus decided to use her previous experience with non-profit management (mainly involving work with supplemental housing and homelessness) to help NAMI reach as many families as possible with educational resources and support groups.

“What we’re really trying to do is help family members and families feel empowered to do two things,” says Ranus. “One is to be good advocates for the person in their family living with a mental illness, and the other is to help them develop the skills to help take good care of themselves as well.”

In addition to the Family to Family program, NAMI Austin provides other workshops and classes that help advocate for and support the 25 percent of people in the United States living with mental illness. Another class offered is Peer to Peer, which is a support group and educational workshop for people suffering from mental illness. It teaches participants how to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression, how to develop coping mechanisms and how to both care for themselves and prevent relapse.

Both Family to Family and Peer to Peer are 12-week courses that are taught not by professionals or health care specialists, but are instead guided by what Ranus calls the “lived experience.” They are taught by individuals and family members who have either suffered from mental illness themselves or have a loved one who has or is suffering from mental illness—individuals like Ranus and her daughter Sara.

NAMI Austin also works to educate the community about advocacy and support. It currently works with local schools to provide school professionals with educational presentations that teach what mental illness can look like in students and how to best address the needs of these individuals in a way that is supportive and productive. It is also currently launching a program called “End the Silence,” which is presented in high schools and middle schools to educate teenagers and young adults about mental health disorders in adolescents.

NAMI Austin has grown tremendously over the past couple of years. Through fundraising efforts and stories like the Ranus family’s, it has reached hundreds of families and individuals across the Austin community, providing help, hope and advocacy for individuals who need a place to turn, and changing the face of mental illness one presentation at a time.

“We want people to start talking about what mental illnesses really are. They’re like physical illnesses. They require treatment and medication and a support system,” says Ranus. People can live and function well with mental illnesses. And then we invite them to help us. We can reduce the stigma associated with mental illness by beginning to talk about mental health with each other and with other people.”

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