by Martha Brick, Manager NAMI HelpLine
I first started at NAMI as a volunteer nine years ago. I was so moved by working on the HelpLine that I stayed to become a staff member. There are now seven staff and 27 dedicated volunteers who are ready to listen and provide help and support to the many thousands of individuals, family members and others whose lives are affected by mental illness.
Almost all of the people working on the HelpLine, myself included, have been touched in some way by mental illness. This ability to form a connection to the people who contact us helps create a bond that gives power to our mission that we advocate here at NAMI. Whether our stories are joyful or sad, our ability to understand the stigma so often strongly associated with mental illness is an important skill we all want to share.
By suggesting ideas from their own experience that have worked for themselves, HelpLine members can connect with callers and change the entire tone of a call. One NAMI HelpLine member used her own personal experience of living with depression by suggesting that the caller might want to try volunteering in her community to help keep from isolating herself. She had been leery at first, but near the end of the phone call, she sounded much more hopeful than she had when the call began.
At times it can be emotionally draining to hear some of the tragic situations people are in. Hearing the struggle of many people sometimes feels as if a weight is being placed on our shoulders, especially when the call has no easy answer. Sometimes something terrible has happened and they ask, "Who should I talk to?," "Who should I go to for help?" or "What's the best thing I can do?" Sometimes, there is no straightforward answer; there is no one right answer. Those are the toughest times: When the desire to help is so strong but you find yourself limited by either your own knowledge and abilities or the situation is merely out of your hands.
At times an event has transpired that cannot be undone. Providing reactive measures can help, but telling people these ideas often doesn't feel like enough; I can't, after all, undo the tragic event and completely fix the situation. But even when I don't feel I have necessarily provided a foolproof solution, I'm surprised. One time I sympathized with a caller, gave him some possible ways of finding legal help and told him to how to contact his local NAMI where he might find people who had been through similar situations. Although I knew I couldn't change what had happened, my help still provided hope and I received the following reply from the person:
I can't thank you enough for responding to my email. I will take your advice- it means a lot to me that someone understands.
Whether he took all my advice or merely benefited from a friendly ear, I was still able to lend help in some manner. Luckily though, even with the occasional positive endings, those hard-to-answer calls are few and far between. The majority of the time we can provide concrete help to callers, and sometimes that help comes when they feel they have nowhere else to turn. Knowing that your support can be life-saving for some individuals makes the emotional struggle of difficult calls much easier to bear.
The temporary strain of stressful calls pales in comparison to the joy I feel when I receive an email, a letter or even a simple "thank you" on the telephone after I've helped someone. Even the thank you from a simple request, such as sending out a packet of information on bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, is cherished because you know that, with your help, that person is one step closer to recovery.
Providing help gives me a sense of purpose, a sense of fulfillment. Knowing that for even a moment I was able to help make that caller feel less alone is invaluable. A few years ago, I directed someone with a missing relative who lived with mental illness to the missing persons section of our website. After several days, I received an email thanking me for my advice and letting me know that the missing relative had been located.
Stories like these keep me passionate about my work here at NAMI. The opportunity to lend a helping hand or listening ear to those in need is what inspires me to come to work every day-and hopefully help make at least one person's day a little less difficult.
If you need help concerning you or your loved one's mental illness don't hesitate to call the NAMI HelpLine at (800) 950-NAMI (6264).