For a Good Cause: Marla Byrnes, NAMI Syracuse

Tell me about the history of NAMI Syracuse.

NAMI Syracuse was established in 1981 as promise by a group of local families impacted by mental illness. They were appalled by the lack of services for the mentally ill and they were tired of the psychiatric system blaming them for their loved ones’ illness. They joined together to support one another, fight stigma, advocate for better services, legislate for insurance coverage for mental illness treatment and demand research into neurobiological illnesses.

Betty Pringle, Marge Hinton, Sarah Edwards, Sheila LeGacy, Ardis Egan, Jeanette Whitmore were just a few of the women who had the courage to speak out in their community about the needs of persons with mental illness. They were not intimidated by the shame our society tried to place on families who were impacted by mental illness. They were proud of their loved ones for the struggles they faced each day. It takes guts to share your story as a family or as a person with mental illness. These are the brave people in whose footsteps I follow.


What is the organization’s mission?

We offer support and advocacy for friends and family of persons affected by mental illness. We are dedicated to improving the lives of all persons affected by mental illness through outreach, education and community collaboration.


How do you help those struggling with mental illness? What services do you provide?

Our main mission is to help the family and friends who are a support to a person with a mental illness. We offer free educational series to families about mental illness, resources, medications, coping strategies and the latest research. We have support groups twice a month for family members and once a month for persons with mental illness. We offer speakers to organizations to educate our community about mental illness. We advocate locally and statewide for better services. We hold a yearly conference on mental illness. We work to finance our missions by holding a fundraiser once a year. We staff an office Monday through Friday where you can talk to someone about finding resources in the community.


How did you get involved with NAMI?

I became involved with NAMI almost 30 years ago as a psychiatric nurse who was interested in learning more. The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ yearly conferences were jam-packed with the latest in research on mental illness. I wanted to be part of that energy and hunger to know more about treating and supporting persons with mental illness in recovery. What I didn’t know was my own son would become ill in 2004 at age 20 with schizoaffective disorder.

Women in particular tend to ignore their mental wellness. Why is it so important that we make our mental health a priority? Women are caretakers. We take care of others first. Women have realized we can’t take care of others unless we take good care of self. Everyone tries to minimize their struggles. We don’t want to be seen as “ weak or sick.” What I’ve learned is it takes great strength to recognize when we need help. NAMI wants to promote conversations about our mental wellness along with physical wellness. People are getting on board with prioritizing exercise and healthy eating, but what is going on with our minds? Do we feel worthless while we still put on a smile at work? Do we struggle to get out of bed because we feel like a loser, but we drag ourselves through the day pretending everything is ok? We can’t be healthy unless the whole self is healthy.


How can we prioritize mental health?

New York is the first state to mandate schools add information to the curriculum about mental illness. It’s a small step in the right direction.

Keep mental health treatment on the table when we talk about health care. Early intervention by screening for mental illness at schools and during regular physicals is another good step. Keep the conversation going about mental health treatment with your legislators.


If a loved one is struggling, how can we help?

Speak up. Tell the person the changes you have noticed and that you’re worried. Encourage the loved one to go see their doctor. Offer to call and set up the appointment or to accompany them to the doctor. Often the first warning signs are sleep disturbance, changes in mood, loss of interest in activities, odd ideas, changes in energy levels and feelings of sadness, guilt or anger.

The first step may be a good physical to rule out medical causes for the changes. Keep encouraging the person to find out answers to why they feel differently. Normalize the situation as a medical condition that needs investigation and treatment.

Struggling with mental illness and trying to help a person with mental illness gets complicated. Many people deny anything is wrong. It’s part of the illness. Listen and empathize with their struggle. Let them know you are there to help. Don’t do this alone — rally your supports, including NAMI.


What do you wish people understood about NAMI? About mental illness?

We are families who have struggled and now volunteer our time, energy and passion to help make other families. Navigating the mental health system can be daunting. We want to help.

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care who you are, how old you are, your finances, how good-looking you may be, what talents you have, how much your family loves you, how smart you are or what dreams you have for yourself. It can happen to anyone. One in four families are affected by mental illness. One person out of five will experience a mental illness. These are common illnesses that we have burdened with the shadow of shame.


How can people donate or otherwise help NAMI?

NAMI Syracuse is a not-for-profit organization that depends on people joining our organization or supporting our fundraising efforts. Our website has a donate button, or you can call our office to donate time or money to assist us. You can put our brochures at your church or temple. You can invite us to speak at your book club. You can like our Facebook page. You can attend an educational series to learn more about mental illness. You can refer a friend in need to NAMI. There are many ways to help fight stigma and promote mental health treatment. This article will reach many folks who have never heard of our organization.

Thank you for this opportunity to spread the word that we are here to help and offer hope.

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