The NAMI Connection vision and the importance of peer support
Director, NAMI Connection Recovery Support Group Program
Peer support is essential in helping people living with mental illness realize they are not alone; that someone else understands what they are going through and are ready to help by offering insight from their own experience. Research has shown that participation in peer support programs is beneficial to the individual, causing recognizable improvement in psychiatric symptoms and decreased hospitalization, the expansion larger social support networks, enhanced self-esteem and social functioning while decreasing the lengths of hospital stays and the overall cost of treatment.
We find strength in sharing experiences: The NAMI Connection model
NAMI recognizes the importance of peer support for people who live with mental illness and responds to this need with NAMI Connection. NAMI Connection is a free, weekly, 90-minute support group for any person with a mental illness available in hundreds of communities across the country. The NAMI Connection model works so effectively because it is run by facilitators who are in recovery themselves. The group can talk about personal situations and both give and receive guidance. For some participants, realizing that their experiences can help them help others is a first step in rebuilding their self esteem which has been shaken by the illness experience.
From California to Connecticut, each group makes its own way through the same set of principles and practices. One of the unique things about the model is that it acts on multiple levels: a 2008 survey of NAMI Connection participants showed that group members found both understanding and practical information to help with problems.
We understand that mental illnesses are traumatic events: Empowerment and community
When people first come to a NAMI Connection support group, they often feel isolated, discouraged and even hopeless. The experience of mental illness often brings with it multiple losses—the loss of a job, relationships and other things one can expect from life. Each of these losses can take a toll on individuals’ self-concept, making them less likely to take social risks, which in turn keeps them from taking steps towards recovery. NAMI Connection provides a way out of this cycle with a safe environment for people to emerge from isolation and form bonds, make new friends, and experience a sense of acceptance and belonging.
Many people write to us about their experience in a NAMI Connection group and tell us how much the group process has helped them. One person relates,
“I am not alone! There is a place where people understand me, are there to help me, and I feel better about myself when I help someone else. I can get involved in NAMI Connection and make a difference!”After attending several groups, many people feel they are getting so much out of the experience that they would like to be trained as a facilitator and guide a group themselves. Facilitators then have the option to become trainers, and many also start volunteering in other capacities for their NAMI State Organization or NAMI Affiliate. Many then feel ready to entertain the idea of part-time or full-time work. One group attendee tells us,
“The NAMI Connection group is the best one because people can solve problems there. It isn't just a bunch of sad stories; people are coming up with solutions and stuff to do for the next week. One of our group attendees is taking her meds, getting herself to her counselor and is just about able to go back to her career—in great part due to NAMI Connection.”We expect a better future: Making new Connections
Since NAMI Connection launched in 2007, we have established more than five hundred groups in forty-seven states with our NAMI Affiliates. As part of our effort to reach out to diverse communities, we launched the Spanish-language NAMI Conexiòn this fall to address the needs of the Latino community, and we are currently developing initiatives to reach veterans as well as people living with mental illness in jails and prisons.
The program is also stepping up its web offerings, including a Facebook Community and an online Skype group currently in beta testing. We are very excited about this project, as it makes the group accessible to a whole new community of participants in rural areas and those without reliable transportation.
We want to make this life-changing program available to as many people as possible—to make a support group available every day of the week for anyone, no matter where they live, who needs the strength they can find in sharing experiences.