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About NAMI Humboldt

As recollected in 2002 by Sara M. Turner, Founder

One of the first items our fledgling group addressed was what to call ourselves. Neither of us can remember just how we met in 1976 or how we came to discuss the problems we faced as the parent of an adult with mental illness. Both of us were social workers in different organizations and we knew about resources for help. However, when Marian A. and I spoke of our problems in the unremembered time and place, we agreed that there must be others like us who could benefit from a group experience where we could educate, support and console each other. That was all we had in mind. "Families for Mental Recovery" was what we were.

We decided to see what would happen when a notice was placed in the two local papers for beginning a "self-help" group for families who had a mentally ill relative. Since we both lived north of Eureka, we obtained permission to use space in Humboldt Federal Savings and Loan office building, now Humboldt Bank [Arcata].

Fewer than six people came, but as we introduced ourselves and talked about the psychiatric problems our children had (all of whom were young adults then), it was obvious that our experiences were remarkably similar. We felt guilt (what did we do wrong?), shame (there is no way this son/daughter will ever be socially acceptable to friends or family), anger (often a spouse blames the other for perceived parental faults), and puzzlement (what has caused this strange behavior?).

Very little was available in the way of services. My own son had been hospitalized at Sempervirens (SV) when it was still located in the old General Hospital. The move to its current location at 720 Wood Street and the first Day Treatment came later in that decade. So, our group began by sharing how we coped and what we did to help our son/daughter acknowledgte a need for help, and then by obtaining it.

The small nucleus of members gathered monthly and, although notices were placed in the newspapers, the group did not grow in size. Almost no one came simply because a mental health worker, a doctor or other care giving professional suggested they do so. That situation is no longer true; our group is often suggested by professionals who know and respect us now. I believed then that having non-profit status would generate improved recognition and, perhaps, money. I completed the application and we were state approved in July, 1979.

We applied to the Humboldt Area Foundation in the eighties for a small grant and were approved. This enabled us to buy a used typewriter and an answering machine, have a professionally produced brochure printed, and obtain letterhead. Since some of us were willing to go public about our family situation, we have listened and counseled many distraught people who would not always identify themselves. The element of stigma is still strong, but unquestionably there has been a diminution of it.

The size and interests of our group waxed and waned. More Eureka members brought a relocation of our meetings to the current site, Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District office at 828 Seventh Street, Eureka. The water board's generosity in making this space available free has contributed immeasurably to our continuity. [Consult the Meetings page for the address of NAMI Humboldt's most recent meetings' location.]

Introduction of new services by the county was painfully slow. We still lack the variety of housing options that would benefit those with mental health problems. A newsletter was printed and distributed in 1990, but none subsequently, until it was resumed in 1995, and only biannually produced now.

In early 1979 I was notified of an organizational meeting to be held in September in Madison, WI, for individuals, both professionals and family, concerned about treatment and care of the mentally ill. That meeting was truly inspirational; it was the only one of many conferences I have attended in my life to which those present had paid their own way. This was not an "expense account" meeting. I became one of the "founders" of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and all local groups like ours were asked to change our name for better recognition. We became Humboldt (County) Alliance for the Mentally Ill (HAMI). [Note: By 2005 our name had metamorphosed to NAMI Humboldt, with the acronym NAMI standing for National Alliance on Mental Illness.]

In our effort to educate ourselves and the community we collaborated with the College of San Mateo to have a workshop in Eureka in May, 1984, on "Schizophrenia: Through the Eyes of the Families." Attendance was gratifying and a unique perspective was introduced to this community.

Among the dedicated members who joined in the '80s was John Sisson, who has been our President for several years. Along with regularly getting the office key and opening the door, he has ably served as facilitator for the Caring and Sharing sessions that now alternate with program meetings.

In our effort to attract and keep members and, in the process, to educate ourselves about mental illnesses and local treatment, we have had many stimulating programs. For a time these were held in the conference room at Humboldt County Department of Mental Health [since renamed Mental Health Branch] during the noon hour. Many staff joined our "brown bag" meetings.

Yet that hour did not seem best for families' attendance, so we returned our program meetings to the first Thursday nights at the HBMWD office downtown. Caring and Sharing meetings had remained there. During the years of low attendance, we questioned whether we should continue. Always, however, a new person would come, with anguish and pain, who spoke to the importance of our sharing their distress and offering empathetic understanding.

New members with special skills have re-configured our organizational structure. Betsy Harrell's attention to detail brought regular meeting sign-up sheets, notes on the speakers, circulation of newsletters from elsewhere and, most important, amendment of by-laws, which had vanished. We have seen both the state and national organizations expand and solidify their structure, with newsletters, annual meetings, and lobbying for legislation we believe essential to good care for our families, ourselves.

The final name change to NAMI Humboldt came at the request of the national organization which, since 1979, has grown to over 250,000 members. Our own group now numbers 90.

We are stronger in more ways than just numbers, however. While we always have welcomed consumers of mental health services, an effective outreach has attracted more who attend and join at a reduced membership fee. Recovering consumers show families what is possible and give hope, that ingredient we all need to survive the valleys along the path of chronic illness.

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