Local Organization Takes Family-to-Family Approach Addressing Mental Illness

Aminah Saleem said she knew she had hit on something big when she first learned about NAMI and the support it provides for caregivers of people with mental illness.

“When I saw the Family to Family class, I thought, wow this is great. This is a class that will train other family members who have loved ones who have mental illness, how to cope and how to deal with them.”

NAMI stands for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  It’s an organization dedicated to bettering the lives of people affected by mental illness.  According to their website, NAMI has hundreds of local chapters and state organizations to help educate and support people dealing with mental illness.

Ms. Saleem lives in St. Croix, Virgin Islands and with co-founder Marla Matthew, she started a local NAMI chapter in 2012 after she struck out trying to get help for her son.

“I have a son who came back from Iraq and started to develop PTSD, and then it turned into schizophrenia,” she said. “I’ve had my fight with the VA to get him services and asking for help to try to figure out how to cope with him and how to deal with him and there was nobody to tell me,” she said.

Saleem said she went through NAMI’s Family to Family 12-week training course before starting the St. Croix chapter, and it was their unique approach that drew her in.

“You have to have a family member who is mentally ill in order to be a trainer for the family to family classes.  They don’t want psychologists or psychiatrists or social workers to be the trainer because it’s the empathy that we feel, that common bond that we feel of going through it all…” remarked Saleem.

Saleem who now serves as the vice president for NAMI’s St. Croix chapter, said she was surprised by the turnout for the first class.

“We were hoping that for our first class that it would only be three or four people and we would be able to handle that,” she said. “Well, for the first class there was 15 people signed up in the waiting room and we had people come into that class, people I knew well, and they didn’t know what I was dealing with and I didn’t know what they were dealing with because so many people suffer in silence.”

Every class since the start has been filled and much of Saleem’s passion to keep the program going comes from her desire to help others, and her disappointment in the local government.

“The government should be put in jail for what they do for mental health in this community.  The fact that we don’t have a psych ward….the psych ward is the first line of defense for family members when they’re family member is having an episode…. you should be able to call the police, take them to the hospital and have them go into the psych ward to be evaluated and stabilized,” she said. “We don’t have that anymore.”

But, she said, her son’s progress, and that of those around her inspires her to do even more.

“He does not have to live with me anymore you know, he can go out and live the way he wants to live,” she said. “It might not be the way I want him to live but it’s the way he’s happy and that’s fine.”

NAMI St. Croix meets on the second Tuesday of every month.  For more information on the St. Croix chapter, or the NAMI Family to Family class, contact (340) 626-7351 or email info@namistx.org.


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