This fall, Leah Shapiro, of Forest Park, started a program to provide support for Austin residents who have family members living with mental illnesses — a subject close to Shapiro's heart. Her own son, Jeff, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 17. The doctors were able to diagnose him fairly quickly and he was able to get the treatment he needed.
Since then, Shapiro has received training from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Chicago that allowed her to launch a support group for people who have a family member dealing with mental illness.
The group meets every third Saturday of the month, between 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., at the Third Unitarian Church, 301 N. Mayfield Ave. in Austin.
Shapiro said that she wants more NAMI resources to proliferate throughout West Side neighborhoods that need them most. To some extent, the organization is working to make this happen.
Since 2017, NAMI Chicago has been part of a major push to expand mental health awareness on the West Side. It was one of the organizations involved in developing the City of Chicago's West Side Community Outreach, a program designed to help residents recognize the signs of mental illness and remove the stigma associated with mental illness in the process.
At the time, Alexa James, the executive director at NAMI Chicago, said that the West Side was chosen because it is already "rich in resources," so there was a foundation to build on.
A few months later, the program appeared to bear fruit. According to a preliminary study released by the University of Illinois Chicago's Jane Addams College of Social Work in August 2017, 300 community organization employees, a little over 100 faith leaders and a little over 100 school staff members completed training, bringing the total up to over 500.
The major issue that gets in the way of addressing mental illness, Shapiro said, is the stigma surrounding it. While the stigma exists in all communities to some extent or another, she feels that it's stronger in minority communities.
"People, especially in African-American and Hispanic communities, are embarrassed," she said, adding that there's also the fact that families already worry about their children facing discrimination and they worry that being labeled mentally ill would only make things worse.
The family support groups serve several purposes, and combating the stigma is one of them.
"We reject the stigma in ourselves and others," Shapiro said.
The UIC study shows that NAMI's support group training may work. Researchers interviewed the training participants before and after the training was complete. The study found that the training lowered the stigma of mental illness among participants.
Shapiro said that a major component of facing down the challenges of stigma is addressing the guilt many family members feel. Shapiro recalled that she's been asked what she did wrong, because many people assume that her son's schizophrenia had something to do with the way she raised him.
"The key is, you didn't cause it," she said. "You let go of the guilt. It helps people. The idea is, I'm healthy, I'm not in any way responsible for my schizophrenia."
All NAMI Chicago family support groups are run by volunteers who have family members who are dealing with mental illness and have completed the 12-week training course that Shapiro went through. They are free and completely confidential. Members can atoned as many meetings as they want and leave the group altogether any time, if they choose to.
"NAMI needs to have presence on the West side," Shapiro said. "They need to serve the African-American community. That's my priority right now."
Anyone who wants to attend or find out more about the group can call Shapiro at (718) 218-2102.
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