NAMI-CAN: Four years of supporting local parents
For the past four years, National Alliance on Mental Illness Child & Adolescent Network (NAMI-CAN) support groups at the Gilbert & Bennett Cultural Center in the Georgetown section of Wilton have provided free support to parents of children and adolescents with behavioral, emotional and mental health concerns.
NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for Americans affected by mental health. The organization not only advocates for access to services, treatment, supports, and research but also offers support and education programs for families and individuals living with mental health conditions.
“Having a child with mental health challenges is stressful, exhausting and lonely,” said Wilton resident and Wilton Youth Council president Vanessa Elias, who has been been facilitating NAMI-CAN support groups here with Weston resident Beth Schweitzer since 2015.
Elias first learned about NAMI support about four years ago while talking to a friend about struggles her own family was facing.
“I had said that I wished there was a mental health version of Alcoholics Anonymous,” said Elias.
That’s when her friend told her about NAMI meetings in Stamford, and Elias decided to attend one.
“There were other families from Wilton and surrounding towns, and somehow I managed to convince the two kind and generous facilitators to start a group in Wilton,” said Elias.
A few months later, in July 2014, the first meeting in Georgetown was held, she said.
As her home life stabilized, Elias said, she decided she wanted to “give back,” so she helped organize a NAMI-CAN night, focused on school refusal behavior, in February 2015. Five months later, Elias said, she and Schweitzer “took over” and started running the NAMI-CAN support groups at Gilbert & Bennett.
Elias and Schweitzer first had to undergo training, which included a weekend-long support group facilitator training session run by NAMI CT at the St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Conn.
“We were the only two who were being trained to run parent groups that weekend,” Elias recalled.
Schweitzer said she got involved with NAMI-CAN because she “wanted to help others.”
“NAMI-CAN is a resource for people to find comfort from those going through or who have gone through a similar experience. It’s an opportunity for parents and primary caregivers to feel understood,” she said.
“There is so much power in feeling free to talk to others who truly understand. When you have a child who isn’t like everyone around you, it’s not only hard for the child but difficult for the parent.”
Schweitzer said families “often keep things private, or even distance themselves, because they don’t want to hear what other children are doing” because “it makes them sad.”
“Parents can talk to their friends, who can lend them an empathetic ear — it’s appreciated, but they know they really don’t understand, nor do they want them to,” she said.
NAMI-CAN, on the other hand, is “a place for parents to share and not hide,” said Schweitzer. “It’s a place for them to truly be understood and not judged.”
NAMI-CAN support groups meet at the Gilbert & Bennett Cultural Center at 49 New Street on the fourth Monday of every month, except July and August, at 10 a.m. The next meeting is Monday, March 26.
Schweitzer said there are many issues that come up during the meetings, including “school performance, working with the school as a team, finding the right support, sibling issues and interactions, sharing of resources, social implications, stigma, and the importance of self-help.”
Elias said topics range from “parents trying to figure out if their child needs help to finding a good therapist, learning how to manage the effect on siblings, working with the schools, challenges of insurance, differences in perspective/approach with your spouse, [and] dealing with hospitalizations and suicide attempts.”
“We also make a point to focus on the parent’s needs at the meeting,” said Elias.
“We ask, ‘What do you need for you?’ for them to take a moment and reflect on themselves, and [talk about putting] on their own ‘oxygen mask’ first so that they keep themselves strong and continue to have strength to support their child and family.”
Elias said they also talk about “ways to take care of ourselves,” such as through exercise and meditation.
Since groups started meeting in Wilton, Schweitzer said, “more and more” parents have started attending — many of whom are “in the thick of things,” she said, while others “just want to help.”
Elias said Wilton support groups have grown from “a few parents” to “a consistent group of 10 to 12” each month.
NAMI-CAN meetings are “unique,” said Elias, because they follow a structured model that ensures “everyone in the group has an opportunity to be heard and to get what they need.”
“It’s a special place because parents can express themselves freely and be understood without embarrassment or the fear of being judged or treated differently,” she said. “Parents who attend are all at different points in their journey, so sharing provides an opportunity to educate those in different spots on the journey.”
Elias said her goal is to “raise awareness, fight the stigma and provide support and education that was not previously available.”
Because of her life experience and volunteer role, Elias said, she has “become a mental health advocate and visible” within the community and is “happy to be a resource for families.”
“It is so wonderful to be able to ease someone’s suffering and be a helping hand in working toward a better life,” she said.
“A mom once thanked me and told me that I was a light in a world of darkness. It doesn’t get any more meaningful than that.”