Excitement at NAMI

One of the most exciting changes in mental health advocacy has been the emergence of Brenda Wesley at National
Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)  Greater Milwaukee. She is director of Outreach and two of her main projects are a play Pieces in my own voice about the struggle of people with mental illness and ASK, an outreach effort to the African-American community. ASK is an acronym for access, seek knowledge.

African-Americans like me have several barriers with regard to mental health. Among these are a lack of culturally competent helpers, meaning that we encounter white people who expect us to act like them when we are anxious, poor and short of resources. The programs we encounter make us resist because we’re used to doing things our own way. Wesley has devoted a lot of her time to assisting her sister Betty, whose story was documented in a Milwaukee Magazine article.

African-Americans commonly have multiple challenges such as police records, substance abuse problems, a history of hanging around the wrong people, low self esteem and sexual abuse backgrounds. Quite frankly, we don’t know what “normal” means. I know because I’ve been on both sides of this issue as a provider and a consumer/resister. You can bring us to recovery, but it doesn’t mean we’ll accept it.

We need to see more talented African-Americans hired as mental health advocates and all levels of this field. It’s time to break through the old girls and boys network and have some new blood to invigorate this movement. It’s a matter of simple justice. Those who have the fewest resources and face the most difficult challenges are African-Americans and other people of color. So how are these individuals going to be helped by people who don’t know anything about those experiences and can’t relate to them? This is not your mother’s NAMI and that’s a good thing.

I believe that NAMI has done the best in Milwaukee in terms of outreach to under-served populations. The programs that they began and which Brenda is involved with help reduce the fear people have of seeking more understanding about the nature of mental health. I spoke with a white friend about the play Pieces that Brenda wrote and she said she would have loved to see it because she wanted to learn a new perspective on this issue. While there is a value in hearing white middle class people tell about what happened to them, for others, they may be unable to relate to such stories. That is where having a broader conversation can be helpful.

Applying the idea of diversifying the mental health work force in Milwaukee,  I would like that work force to reflect the background of those of us seeking mental health. That change is more likely to take place with the example of role models like Brenda and the staff of the Black Health Coalition.



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