Mental illness and those who suffer from it have long experienced stigma, but in Forest Park, progressive steps are being taken to raise awareness and educate people about the conditions.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which has a drop-in center in Oak Park, is sponsoring a number of educational, awareness and empowerment programs at the Forest Park Public Library over the next few months. In addition, the village has taken steps to educate its officials about some of the challenges and complexities surrounding mental illness. For instance, a handful of Forest Park police officers have received crisis-intervention training and are qualified to handle potentially dangerous situations involving persons with mental illnesses.
But Forest Park is also home to folks who are dedicated to, as NAMI’s literature points out, putting the person before the disability.
Consider Forest Parker Leah Shapiro. When her son, Jeffrey, who is now 32, was diagnosed with schizophrenia several years back, she made it her mission not only to educate herself about her son’s illness, but also to provide him with as much support as she could. Today, both are heavily steeped in advocacy efforts: Leah is on the NAMI metro suburban board and Jeffrey now teaches courses at Thrive Counseling Center, a mental-health community center in Oak Park.
In fact, the classes and programs that NAMI is sponsoring at the library over the next few months were Leah Shapiro’s suggestion. There will be a 12-week educational course for family of persons with mental illnesses, as well as presentations about crisis intervention by Forest Park police and other empowerment programs.
In addition to being a NAMI board member, Shapiro is also a program instructor; her involvement with the organization dates back to a 12-week, family-to-family course she took some 10 years ago.
“I needed education and support,” she said, adding that families of persons with mental illnesses who enroll in NAMI’s courses “want to understand … the illness and what the appropriate ways are to respond to our family members. How do we get through the system? What does it sound like? What does it feel like to have schizophrenia?”
According to Shapiro, the 12-week course provides that and more – after she took it, she in turn received training and began teaching NAMI courses.
NAMI is a national organization with state and local chapters. Shapiro said its broad focus is promoting education, advocacy and support for persons with mental illness and their loved ones. The organization supports children, adolescents and adults and focuses on a variety of mental illnesses.
The family course at the Forest Park Public Library, 7555 Jackson Blvd., which starts on Sept. 12, will be taught by Bonnie Jordan and her husband, Stephen, both of Oak Park. Bonnie Jordan is also on the board at NAMI metro suburban, and, like Shapiro, she has a son with a mental illness – he has bipolar disorder. She will bring the problem-solving experience she has gained over the years as well as her knowledge of the subject matter to the family member who attend the 12-week course.
Jordan said the course entails relationship-building, studying various diagnoses, and discussing and strategizing problem-solving. Advocacy will also be an important part of the course – attendees will be encouraged to help NAMI or at least advocate for those with mental illness.
“The most important thing is that you recognize you’re not alone,” Jordan said.
In addition to this course, Forest Park police officers who are trained in crisis intervention will discuss how such tactics can be used to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations involving persons with mental illness.
Currently, there are three officers on the police force with training: Sgt. Steve Zanoni, Sgt. Eric Bell and Sgt. Ken Gross. (More information about crisis intervention is available on the police department’s website at forestparkpolice.net.)
Zanoni said that, basically, the training has taught the officers various techniques to use when they encounter a situation involving a person with a mental illness. The officers were also trained on how to counsel families and how to safely transport a person with a mental illness to a facility. (In Forest Park, the police department and Riveredge Hospital, a psychiatric facility, have a strong relationship, according to CEO Carey Carlock.)
Shapiro, who will be moderating the Oct. 11 presentation, said the training is becoming more and more common.
“There are police all over the state who are trained in crisis intervention training. … They’re the first responders,” she said.
There is a mental health advocate on the village board as well – Commissioner Rory Hoskins. In addition to being a NAMI member and a supporter, Hoskins has a background as a social worker and, several years back, worked in the psychiatric ward at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, near Maywood.
Hoskins lauded the work that NAMI does, especially the programs coming to Forest Park, because “some families in Forest Park just don’t have the resources” to meet the needs of family members with mental illness.
But the organization is staffed with tireless volunteers like Shapiro, who is committed to all the aforementioned efforts, and so much more.
And that’s NAMI’s M.O. As a piece of its program literature states, its efforts are “coast to coast.”
For more information on NAMI’s Metro Suburban Drop-In Center, at 816 Harrison St., in Oak Park, call 708-542-2582. For more details about the programs at the Forest Park Public Library, 7555 Jackson Blvd., call 708-366-7171.