Oceanside resident David Sills said he has made it his mission to help families who have loved ones with mental health issues through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which aims to end the stigma associated with those issues.
“It’s helpful just being with other people who share the same concerns as others,” Sills said. “NAMI offers different support groups that help people learn how to talk to their loved ones and give the appropriate guidance.”
Sills said he discovered NAMI, a nonprofit that was established nearly 50 years ago, when he was seeking help for a family member, but declined to go into detail. Founded as a grass-roots group by family members of people diagnosed with mental illnesses, NAMI now has chapters across the country. There were once five offices on Long Island, Sills said, but as a result of funding cuts, only one remains, in Lake Success, and it has more than 400 members. The organization’s meetings are held at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, Queens.
According to NAMI’s website, 47.6 million adults in the U.S. — 1 in 5 — suffered from mental illness in 2018. Many do not know that organizations like it exist. Sills learned about the alliance while teaching at Molloy College in Rockville Centre. A colleague invited a speaker from NAMI to her class, and asked Sills to sit in.
The organization offers many classes and support groups, some of them for parents of children with mental health issues, as well as family meetings. The issues it deals with include how to communicate with someone with mental health problems. Sills said he teaches a class called Basics, for parents of those under age 15, in which they discuss the causes of those problems and the use of medication for them. He emphasizes that parents should not blame themselves if their children have issues.
NAMI also hosts many activities and fundraisers, such as bowling and barbecue outings, an annual summer Beachfest at Jones Beach and a variety of events during Mental Health Week, which concluded last Saturday. According to Sills, two of the most important issues NAMI tackles are finding housing for people with mental health problems and ensuring they receive the proper medication.
“It’s mental health, so it’s no different than having diabetes or cancer or epilepsy,” he said. “It’s a health issue. And if people start realizing that, maybe the stigma will go away.”
Lee Israel, of Fresh Meadows, Queens, said she was having problems with her son, Jeremy, when his therapist suggested she contact NAMI. “The group really changed my relationship with my son,” she said. “He’s just a different person now.”
The Israels began coming to meetings in 2016, and they now attend one on the third Thursday of each month, when they listen to guest speakers and panelists and participate in support groups.
“There are so many people going through this and feeling alone,” Lee said. “I just hope that instead of giving up, people try and find a way to participate. It’s powerful.”
Sills said that the NAMI office in Lake Success is the only one in the state that has a recreation group, and encourages members to play tennis and other sports with one another and develop relationships. The organization also has a Faith Net Committee, he said, where religious leaders discuss how to help people with mental health problems in their congregation.
Alliance representatives visit Oceanside High School once a year to offer a presentation to students and let them know they are welcome to join if they need someone to talk to. Sills lauded Oceanside for being one of the districts at the forefront of tackling mental health issues among students — even before July 2018, when the state mandated that mental health education be added to all schools’ curricula.
This year the district hired a health and wellness provider in the elementary schools, added a mental health course and club in the high school and an overall initiative, OSD Be Well, to tie the programs together and involve the larger community.
“Who we are and how we feel inside should always be a priority,” Samantha Jannotte, the new health and wellness provider, told the Herald last month. “We’re bringing the conversation alive in elementary through high school, so hopefully these kids can really not be afraid to start that conversation as well, if we’re starting it for them. So it’s exciting.”
Sills said NAMI keeps the conversation going among people of all ages who need assistance, and also raises awareness for those who have misconceptions about mental illness. “It’s very important,” he said. “People don’t understand, and a lot of times, mental health issues are perceived as behavior problems.”
To learn more about NAMI, go to www.namiqn.org or call (516) 326-0797.
Briana Bonfiglio contributed to this story.