Thursday, February 17, 2011

Making Possible More Transformative Moments: NAMI’s AAPI Listening Session

By Jeong Shin, Program Manager, NAMI San Francisco
Jeong Shin, Program Manager, NAMI San Francisco 

I began working for NAMI San Francisco in April 2010. At that time I already knew of NAMI's reputation as a mental health advocacy organization. Until I joined as staff, however, I didn’t understand the prevalence of mental illness, nor was I familiar with NAMI's history and the important role that families can play in recovery. Later, I would find out that my husband's grandmother found support from the San Mateo affiliate in the 1970s when her adult son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She still talks about how NAMI provided her with the support and education that helped her understand his mental illness in a way that she could not and did not find anywhere else. This is a phenomenon that I hear repeatedly in people's stories about their experiences with NAMI—that it was transformative and gave them the feeling that they were no longer alone in dealing with this illness. These people found support through NAMI that changed their lives for the better.

As a staff person in an affiliate located in San Francisco, I find it puzzling that we don't have a broad diversity among those who engage in our programs and services. The city of San Francisco is diverse in every way you can possibly think of, so the San Francisco affiliate should be triumphantly diverse as well. And yet, this is not the case. The experience that my husband's grandmother had is one that I would wish for anyone who faces severe mental illness, whether as someone who has a diagnosis or as a family member. However, as a first-generation Korean American, I struggled to understand how the stigma of mental illness can be overcome within my own community.

When I received the invitation to attend the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Listening Session hosted by the NAMI Multicultural Action Center, I felt skeptical about the effectiveness of such a meeting. I hadn't even realized that the Multicultural Action Center existed. I agreed to attend because as an affiliate, we are struggling with finding ways to develop relationships with communities that have long-underserved populations. Our affiliate and many NAMI affiliates across the country are small grassroots organizations. NAMI San Francisco has one part-time staff person supported by a group of very dedicated volunteers. The obstacles to the development of culturally competent programs seemed immense when combined with the need to develop and maintain infrastructure and existing programming.

What I appreciated most about the listening session was the opportunity to sit in a room with other people facing the same challenges. Most of all, the meeting lived up to the name “listening session” with its productive and meaningful discussions. There were no prescribed assumptions about what we as AAPI community members or advocates should implement. Representatives from other NAMI affiliates as well as other community organizations across the country discussed what they were doing at the ground level. We shared what worked and what areas needed further discussion or development, while as a group we collaborated on how we as a community address the barriers we face.

For me, the listening session was less about finding a definitive solution for connecting AAPIs to mental health services and peer support and more about the beginning of a conversation. It is my hope that the report published this week from that Listening Session provokes even more conversation. And it is in that conversation that I hope will be the beginnings of more possibilities for more people to have an inclusive and meaningful transformative moment like the one my husband's grandmother experienced.


Malcolm Varner said...

Well said! I think that diversity and inclusiveness is very important in this area because communities such as people of color and LGBT persons experience the range of mental illness as well, often exacerbated by at times their marginal place. On the other hand, budget and staff shortages do make it hard to achieve ideal outreach and education. Keep up the great work!

Madeline Sharples said...

Because mental illness is still considered a stigma, people are reluctant to do the necessary networking to find help and services. NAMI does a great job in getting the word out about its services. I only wish I had known more about it while my son was suffering with bipolar and before his suicide.

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