How We Created a Community to Fight the Stigma Around Mental Health

The executive director of NAMI explains how education and peer support are key to opening up the conversation around mental illness.

ESB Professional / Shutterstock
ESB Professional / Shutterstock

Welcome to Thriving Mind, a resource to help you understand your individual signs of stress, take small steps to recharge, and unlock better mental health.

You’ve likely heard the statistic: One out of five people in the United States is living with a mental health condition. But what about the other four? They are our family, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, our social network — in other words, we are all affected by mental illness, whether we are living with it, or care about someone who is

People living with mental illness deserve every opportunity to live their best life. Supporting them, while at the same time providing their family and friends with their own trusted support base and the opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills to manage their own lives and continually return the support, is an essential component to recovery.

When a person close to us develops a mental health condition, we want to offer help to the best of our abilities, and hopefully guide them through their healing and recovery. But in the face of something as complex and confounding as mental illness, the reality is that most of us are unprepared and ill-equipped to provide the type of help that can actually be the most effective: peer support from a lived experience.

None of us is born with the instinctual knowledge to navigate the complicated waters that surround mental health. As a result, we are most often winging it, making it up as we go along, and this can lead to added stress and strain, fractured relationships, and a weighted feeling that we are doing it all “wrong.” 

One of the best sources of support comes from listening with an open mind, and a connection to others who have “been there.” At NAMI-NYC, we call this peer support, and it’s the very foundation upon which our organization was built nearly 40 years ago.

Our deep bench of trained and trusted volunteers are the heartbeat of our support services. Family members and friends of persons living with mental illness, as well as individuals living in recovery themselves, lead our classrooms programs, facilitate our support groups, participate in our advocacy efforts, offer presentations throughout the community, and respond to calls on our helpline.

NAMI-NYC provides education about mental illness ranging from information about different diagnoses, the ways in which they manifest and develop, and treatment options. Our programs encourage honest sharing about the emotional experience dealing with mental illness, from the perspective of the individual living with the condition, as well as from the family and caretaker perspective. 

Participants also learn how to communicate more effectively — what to say and when to say it, and, just as importantly, what not to say — how to avoid or manage a crisis, and how to develop the confidence and stamina to provide support with compassion and empathy. 

For individuals living with mental illness, seeing others with a mental health diagnosis who are thriving, returning to a routine, enjoying activities, and participating in society can inspire hope. Our classes normalize talking openly about what it’s like to live with a mental illness, teach participants to better manage their condition, and support their own wellness and recovery. And when you’re struggling with your mental health, hope for recovery is essential, and can often be a beacon of light in an otherwise dark and uncertain world.

For the family and friends of those living with mental illness, learning to see the individual you’re supporting as separate from his or her diagnosis is critical. Connecting with other families and caregivers who support someone living with mental illness can provide an impactful and deep understanding of the challenges and difficulties that surround the person you care about as they, in turn, learn to better support themselves.  

Research shows that when family and friends of individuals living with mental illness are more educated about the condition, develop the skills to enhance communication and manage crises, and have a network of people they can turn to who truly “get it,” the recovery journey of the person they care for is exponentially improved.  This approach creates a win-win scenario for everyone.    

NAMI-NYC creates opportunities for its community to come together to share our stories and utilize concrete resources and practical approaches. I can think of nothing more powerful than talking with your peers about your own experiences and feelings, and knowing you are seen and you are heard because the person sitting with you, or on the other end of the phone, truly understands where you’ve been.

With the right information, education, and support, we can improve the quality of our interactions and very likely, the quality of life for all involved.

As one of the largest NAMI affiliates in the nation, NAMI-NYC builds better lives by providing support, education, and advocacy for families and individuals of all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds who are affected by mental illness. Serving more than 19,000 New Yorkers annually, NAMI-NYC works to educate the public, advocate for legislation, improve the mental health system, and reduce stigma. For more information, please visit

This content is informational and educational, and it does not replace medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from a health professional. We encourage you to speak with your health-care provider about your individual needs, or visit NAMI for more information.

Read more of our mental health coverage here.

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