Lisa Guardiola still counts the blessings her mother helped her connect with the National Alliance on Mental Illness when she was diagnosed as an adult with schizophrenia in 2004.
The organization helped her mother learn how to treat her illness, advocate for her needs and take care of herself.
“Honestly, NAMI saved my life and the life of my family,” Guardiola said. “It helped me realize that I am not alone in my mental health and recovery process.
“It gave me a community that didn’t cast me out and made me feel that despite the turmoil I could achieve anything I wanted, that there were people who cared about my safety and were there for me and did work that I feel loved.”
Guardiola and her mother, Marianne Pettus, now lead the nonprofit’s Southern Suburbs chapter, which is hosting this year’s state conference, October 14-15 at Maureen Valley Community College in Palos Hills.
The conference, Building Unity in Our Community, runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day and provides an opportunity to learn more about the organization’s services as well as discussions about the challenges faced by people with mental illness. Some inequalities in mental health treatment in the region will also be highlighted.
Registration is at https://namiillinois.org/unityincommunity/ and costs $120 for both days, or $80 for one-day registration. People with a diagnosed mental health problem can sign up for half the price. Information is at Conference@namilillinois.org.
Side sessions include ‘Family Matters: Mental Health for Every Stage and Age of Life’, ‘Architecture for Inclusion’ and ‘Creating Tools for Recovery and Wellness’.
Organizers said holding the conference in the southern suburbs is important because of the large number of people in the area who need mental health services. One goal is also to build a coalition of advocates to increase access to more mental health services in the region.
Bethos said she often gets calls from family members of loved ones recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital in Chicago who have had trouble finding help in the southern suburban area. Clinics have also been closed during the pandemic, adding to the difficulties they are facing.
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“We have a shortage of psychiatric beds in the southern suburbs, so patients are being transferred to hospitals in Chicago rather than near their homes,” Bethes said. “After discharge, it is difficult for hospitals to coordinate outpatient care of a patient because we again lack enough caregivers to care for residents in the southern suburbs.”
Young people, in particular, are in dire need of help, said Andy Wade, executive director of NAMI Illinois, citing rising youth mental health problems and suicide rates.
“We’ve been seeing equity problems exacerbated by the significant growth (of mental health issues) across the board,” Wade said, noting that this is a nationwide trend. “We chose the location for a reason – what’s happening in the southwestern suburbs is really some of the issues we’re trying to address statewide in terms of the gaps.”
Some of NAMI’s resources include training for parents of young adults and teens with mental health problems, help for veterans and their families, and support groups. Bethos and Guardiola said they hope the conference and resources will make as much of a difference for struggling families as it has for theirs.
“While I was at my worst, I wasn’t really rooted and there was a disconnect between the community with me and my family,” Guardiola, who teaches mental health first aid and suicide prevention at the Sertoma Center, recalls. “My mom really didn’t know how to help me.
“By being able to go to NAMI and have a support group for her, it has brought our family back together,” Guardiola said.
Janice Newman is a freelance reporter for The Daily Southtown.