It started with pizza. Well, it actually started about a year before the first slice of pizza was eaten, but it was the pizza that was the true catalyst to forging a support network for and strong relationship with veterans.
As anyone involved with NAMI knows quite well, there is a fierce stigma associated with mental illness. I’ve found that this stigma is deep-seated in the veteran community. It can be hard for veterans to admit to having a mental illness such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Further, many veterans shy away from NAMI because the acronym stands for National Alliance on Mental Illness. The term mental illness is hard to own for many.
Tragically, this stigma frequently prevents veterans from seeking the support and help they deserve. As NAMI, with its peer– and family–oriented support and educational programs, is a great resource for veterans, I have worked for the past year—and more—to link the two together. The process has not been easy, but positive connections are forming.
I was very encouraged this summer when President Obama called for Veterans Affairs (VA) Healthcare Systems across the country to hold mental health summits. Then, when Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of NAMI, asked all NAMI directors to immediately connect with their local VAs, I was thrilled. This was truly a wonderful to continue the connection we at NAMI Lane County were building with our local veterans.
Eager to participate in a VA mental health summit, I reached out to the two VAs in Oregon: VA Portland and VA Roseburg. The Portland VA was already working with NAMI directors from the Portland area; however, Roseburg’s Douglas County is adjacent to Lane. The proximity and common goals of VA Roseburg and NAMI Lane made a perfect connection. On Aug. 20, 2013, I traveled 75 miles south of my NAMI Lane County office with Moy MacGill, a local veteran also interested in improving mental health access for veterans. Together, we attended the mental health summit whose purpose it was “to explore opportunities within VA and community partnerships to build and sustain efforts that will enhance mental health and well-being for veterans and their families.”
In the arena of mental health care, great things are happening for our veterans. Many different people collaborated at the summit. We joined representatives from homeless shelters and housing programs, doctors and nurses, crisis team members and others—from multiple counties in Oregon—and together we collaborated to see what our communities of veterans and civilians could do to increase the availability of and participation in mental health services.
I feel very strongly about the power of community collaboration and partnerships and I am optimistic about the collaborations that were created or strengthened by the end of the summit. I discussed the needs of veterans and their family members, presented on community collaboration and partnerships and provided numerous NAMI brochures that highlight various NAMI programs, including NAMI Peer-to-Peer, NAMI Family-to-Family, NAMI Connection and NAMI FaithNet. Out of this consortium came another exciting connection. NAMI Lane County’s relationship with NAMI Douglas County was strengthened and I was able to help members of NAMI Douglas connect with members of the VA. Even before the end of the conference, NAMI Douglas and VA Roseburg were forming plans to forge a strong, Veteran-centered mental health community.
For me, the most important part of the mental health summit was networking. Talking about the importance of community partnerships and actively collaborating to plan for the immediate future means that veterans can look forward to high-quality mental health services that carry fewer stigmas and thus allow greater access.
Post-summit, we at NAMI Lane County continue to work actively to serve veterans. When we first began to actively reach out to local veterans, we had minimal success. Again, most veterans have a strong aversion to the term mental illness. So I decided to back off a bit, but I didn’t back away. I decided to try hosting a pizza night for veterans. We made it very low-key. NAMI resource brochures were available, but they weren’t forced upon people. Fellow NAMI members and I talked causally with those who came.
The next month, we tried it again. Many returned for another relaxed night of making connections, and several brought others with them. Over the past year, our monthly Veterans’ Pizza Feed has grown. In addition to NAMI representatives, other community advocates for veterans and their families come together for casual conversation and pizza. People mingle. Resources are readily available, but they are not pushed. As a result, veterans feel comfortable and connected. Attendance has grown from approximately 12 to15 veterans per month to more than 50 per month. We have found a way to connect with veterans in a way that works for them and we plan to keep the momentum going.
NAMI may stand for National Alliance on Mental Illness, but the acronym itself is not what is important. When I am asked what NAMI is, I say that we are an organization that provides support, education and outreach to individuals and families affected by mental health issues. This helps take away stigma’s power and I have learned that the change makes people want to converse. When I describe NAMI in this way to a veteran, there is a good chance he or she will want to learn more as we share pizza.
Jose Soto, III is the director of NAMI Lane County headquartered in Eugene, Ore. He has served in the U.S. military as a member of the Army National Guard.
Tanya J. Peterson is a NAMI member and active volunteer. She writes and speaks to increase awareness of mental illness. Her latest novel, Leave of Absence, is about schizophrenia, depression and PTSD.