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Friday, December 17, 2010

Personal Challenges Lead to Career Calling

Personal Challenges Lead to Career Calling:
Judy Gardner takes NAMI reins after loved one’s mental illness
(Appeared on front page of 
Fairfield Sun 12/16)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Judy Gardner did not become the president of the Fairfield chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) by chance.

Interviewed recently at First Church Congregational, where the chapter maintains an office, Gardner explained, “Several years ago, a loved one was hospitalized and diagnosed with mental illness. What I immediately needed to know was what the illness was, what was going to happen, how it was going to happen and what I could do to help my loved one as well as myself.”

Gardner said it was a difficult time. “There’s a whole range of emotions involved when dealing with a crisis, including shock, confusion and feelings of isolation. It can feel devastating. It felt like our life was thrown up into the air and into a million different pieces with no idea what was going to happen next,” she said.

A Connection to Help

She began reading everything she could about the diagnosis and discovered NAMI contact info in one of the books. Gardner walked into the local support group and found people who knew what she was going through because they had been there.

Gardner found more information and help understanding the mental healthcare system. “There are a lot of holes and gaps and no one hands you a map and says here’s what you do,” she said. And roadblocks abound. Due to certain confidentialities, a loved one may not be able to find out a diagnosis or be included in a treatment plan. “You’re often left powerless,” she added.

In contrast, there’s a complete protocol for care for a stroke victim emerging from a hospital and an abundance of information provided to the caregiver.

“NAMI fills this void,” said Gardner, “sharing the knowledge and skills its constituents have learned.”

After attending the support group, Gardner took the Family-to-Family course, which really changed her life, she said. “It enabled me to have more compassion for my loved one. I came to understand that it’s an actual physical brain disorder and not a personality flaw or chosen behavior. It empowered me to feel like I could handle this successfully. And I connected with people who had a shared experience.”

Gardner got so much from the program that she felt motivated to want to provide the same opportunity for other families to feel the same way and become empowered. In 2007, she was trained as a Family-to-Family instructor and support group facilitator and asked to be on the board. “I felt so strongly about the fellowship of NAMI that I accepted the presidency in 2008,” she said.

A Mission Driven by Need

A stigma has long been associated with mental illness, and sufferers and caregivers like Gardner have struggled to find information and resources to work through associated challenges. For the past three decades, NAMI, a non-profit worldwide organization with many local faces, has been working to change perceptions and provide critical support.

In 1979, a group of parents in Minnesota, whose children had been diagnosed with mental illness, frustratingly searched for information and resources to help them address and work through their issues. Recognizing that there were few answers and little guidance, they joined together to found NAMI with a mission of support, education and advocacy. Since its humble beginnings, the organization has grown to an international scale with over 1,100 affiliate groups worldwide.

The Fairfield chapter was founded in 2000 by town resident Nina Engstrom and First Church Congregational’s pastor David Spolette. Engstrom felt that there was a need for support services for families in the area that had loved ones living with mental illness. The first support group meeting was attended by 14 people, which Gardner said was a large turnout for this type of function. She added, “It confirmed there was a definite need in the community.”

The chapter now serves most surrounding towns including Weston, Easton, Trumbull and Bridgeport, and has 100 members and over 400 registered supporters. The latter receive a monthly e-newsletter, legislative alerts and event notices. The Fairfield group has also just been recognized by NAMI as the Outstanding Affiliate in Connecticut, an award presented to Gardner.

NAMI is funded through various streams including a springtime fundraising walk, membership fees, private donations and sales of custom greeting cards.

All programs NAMI offers are free and those hosted by the Fairfield chapter are held at First Church. Programs include a speaker-led session on the first Wednesday of every month devoted to topics like psychiatry, medication, estate planning, special needs trusts, wellness, coping, communication skills and hospital services. On the third Wednesday of the month, a support group meets to help people living with a mental illness who are in recovery and any associated family or friends.

Once a year, a legislative social, to which all the legislators from surrounding towns are invited, is held. The State Public Policy Committee, which is part of NAMI, identifies topics of concern to members and educates the legislators. Gardner said, “The legislative sessions are critical and often result in improvement in and preservation of existing services.”

Also held annually is Family-to-Family, a NAMI national flagship program. It spans 12 weeks and is open to family members living with people challenged by mental illness. The program is led by trained NAMI family members and provides communication and problem-solving skills, coping and self-care skills and information on the different mental illnesses and medication options.

An aligned program is NAMI Basics, which, over six weeks, gives caregivers similar help as Family-to-Family and information on dealing with schools and service providers.

Finally, the NAMI Book Club, which operates in conjunction with and is held at Fairfield Public Library, offers books focused on the mind and meets every other month.

Changing Perceptions

One of the main goals of NAMI is to eliminate the stigma normally associated with mental illness. “No one chooses to have a mental illness and, really, it’s a medical condition related to brain malfunction,” said Gardner. “The research that’s ongoing is helping to destigmatize mental illness. There’s both chemical and developmental dysfunctions that have been detected in the brain. Researchers are also finding strong genetic links in this area.”

Gardner added, “Mental illnesses are spectrum illnesses, so there are people on one end that can function with the illness and others who are debilitated. One out of four families in the U.S. is living with a loved one with mental illness.”

NAMI focuses on schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorder. For those afflicted, NAMI provides support groups, an In Your Own Voice program led by trained speakers that share their personal testimonies for living with and overcoming mental illness and a 12-week Peer-to-Peer program offering education and living skills.

Treatment is multi-faceted including talk therapy, medication, lifestyle adjustment, nutrition, exercise and guidance on self-care and balance.

“We want to take mental illness out of the closet, and the more light we shed on it and emphasize that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, the faster we can help remove the stigmas surrounding it,” Gardner hoped.

For more information about NAMI, contact Judy Gardner at 203-650-3463 or visit


Holiday Stress-Reducing Tips

Knowing how to handle stress is particularly important, especially at the holidays. This period is a time of high expectations around everything from company parties, present buying and family get-togethers to decorating, meal preparation and entertaining. The holiday adds a lot on top of everything else for which we are responsible.

Judy Gardner, President of the Fairfield chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said about the holiday time, “People find themselves out of time, out of money and out of patience. There’s an ideal for how things are supposed to be. It’s important to know yourself and take of yourself.”

Gardner suggested some guidelines for reducing stress during the holidays: (1) know your limits emotionally and financially (2) manage your time (3) learn how to say “no” (4) know what causes you stress (5) eat properly (6) get ample sleep (7) take some time for yourself to pursue a diversion like yoga, meditation, running, walking or listening to music.

“It’s so important to take time to do something that feeds you and takes care of you,” said Gardner. “If you can take 10 minutes to shuttle children to an activity, you can take 10 minutes to de-stress. You find that it feels good and can lead to longer periods of relaxation and self-care. Everybody around you benefits from you being in a better place.”

Gardner suggested similar strategies for surviving the cold, gray days of winter. “It’s important to get into the sunlight, go for a walk, make efforts to be with other people and do what you like to do.”