Volume XIX | Issue 2 | Fall 2019
Barb Hofford travels throughout Douglas County to share how mental illness has affected her family. She volunteers as an instructor for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Photo: Mike Henneke/The News-Review

Sharing the recovery process

Mental health youth programs expand to serve rural Oregon

Young people struggling with mental illness, and their families, face a double whammy in rural areas of Oregon — lack of awareness and acceptance coupled with a shortage of services. And that’s a problem. Research in the last decade has demonstrated that about 50% of all people with mental health disorders first develop symptoms before the age of 14, and 25% between the ages of 14 and 25.

When he was 24, our son finallygot into a treatment program .... Now he’s a straight-A student.... 

— Barb Hofford

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is a grassroots, volunteer-based organization that provides education and support to people living with mental conditions, along with their families. In Oregon, NAMI is working to expand educational opportunities in rural areas of the state, offering local training and expanding its volunteer base in order to reach more families. 

Two of NAMI’s programs are specifically aimed at youth: 

NAMI Basic, a shortened version of NAMI’s signature 12-week course, is a six-week class designed for parents and caregivers with school-age children in their households who have a mental health issue. 

Ending the Silence is an awareness program aimed at high school and middle school students. The 50-minute presentation is delivered in middle and high schools by a pair of trainers — a family member experienced in dealing with mental illness and a young person who has actually experienced it.

A grant from The Ford Family Foundation has helped NAMI offer trainings in Southern Oregon for the volunteers who conduct the sessions. The instructors can then bring the trainings to their communities. “We are able to bring the trainer in from NAMI national and hold the training in Roseburg rather than Portland,” says Chris Bouneff, executive director of the Oregon state office of NAMI. Financial support has also helped NAMI with outreach to potential partners, marketing and recruitment of new volunteers.

Barb Hofford is a health professional (she works as a nurse for Douglas Education Service District) but volunteers as a NAMI instructor in her role as a family member. She has helped share Ending the Silence about 18 times. 

“When we bring the program to assemblies and classrooms, I share my son’s story,” she says. “I look these kids in the eye and I say, I know some of you kids are dealing with these issues and I want you to get help. 

“When he was 24, our son finally got into a treatment program that lasted a year. Now he’s a straight-A student at Columbia University. I’m excited to tell them that.”

Personal stories

Family members like Hofford who can share their personal stories are the backbone of the program. All of the content in both courses is based on lived experiences. ”We can speak to the recovery process and how important it is to reach out, how normal it really is,” Hofford says. “These are very commonplace disorders. It’s very normal. It’s out there all around us.”

The trainings are offered by local NAMI chapters, of which there are 15 in Oregon — 11 of them entirely staffed by volunteers. If the training isn’t available in a particular area, the state office will find a way to deliver it. NAMI also operates a helpline at (800) 950-NAMI (6264).   

 “It’s important to emphasize that when you come to NAMI, you are among your peers,” Bouneff says. “You don’t have to apologize or explain anything. We know because we live it; we know what you are going through. We create safe places so people can understand what’s going on in their lives and learn what they need so they can continue their journey of recovery.”

School age is a critical age, according to Bouneff. “If we intervene effectively at this time, we can save people struggles in the rest of their life. It is essential that organizations like ours focus on this age range, especially with the shortage of  services in rural areas.” 

How you can help

NAMI is looking for people who have lived with a child with a mental health condition to be trained as instructors. Young people who have experienced living with mental health conditions are also being sought for the Ending the Silence program. 

Volunteers don’t have to be familiar with NAMI; experience with mental illness and the desire to help others are the main requirements. 

People interested in volunteering and organizations interested in bringing the trainings to their communities can contact NAMI at namioregon@namior.org or (800) 343-6264. 

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