This fall, Leah Shapiro, of Forest Park, started a program to support Austin residents who have family members living with mental illnesses — a subject close to Shapiro’s heart. Her own son, Jeff, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 19. Doctors were able to diagnose him fairly quickly and he was able to get the treatment he needed. Jeff is now healthy and a certified recovery specialist for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for the Metro Suburban region.

Since then, Shapiro has also received training from NAMI, which allowed her to launch a support group for people who have a family member dealing with mental illness. The group meets every third Saturday of the month, between 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., at the Third Unitarian Church, 301 N. Mayfield Ave. in Austin.

Shapiro said that she wants more NAMI resources throughout West Side neighborhoods that need them most. Since 2017, NAMI Chicago has been part of a major push to expand mental health awareness on the West Side. It was one of the organizations involved in developing the city’s West Side Community Outreach, a program designed to help residents recognize the signs of mental illness and remove the stigma associated with mental illness in the process. At the time, Alexa James, executive director at NAMI Chicago, said the West Side was chosen because it is already “rich in resources,” so there was a foundation to build on.

And, a few months later, the program appeared to bear fruit. According to a preliminary study released in August 2017 by the University of Illinois Chicago’s Jane Addams College of Social Work, 300 community organization employees, more than 100 faith leaders and a little over 100 school staff members completed the NAMI training, bringing the total up to more than 500 locals familiarized with how to identify and support mental illness. 

Shapiro said the major issue in addressing mental illness is the stigma surrounding it. While the stigma exists in all communities to some extent, she said she feels it’s stronger in minority communities.

“People, especially in African-American and Hispanic communities, are afraid of being stigmatized. The family support groups serve several purposes, and combating the stigma is one of them. We reject the stigma in ourselves and others,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro said that a major component of facing down the challenges of stigma is addressing the guilt many family members feel. Shapiro recalled that she’s been asked what she did wrong, because many people assume that her son’s schizophrenia had something to do with the way she raised him.

“The key is to try to let go of the guilt,” she said. “The idea is that my relative’s mental illness does not define them and that mental illness is a brain disease.”   

All NAMI family support and education groups are run by volunteers who have family members who are dealing with mental illness. Facilitators and educators receive two to three days of training. NAMI programs are free and completely confidential. Support group members can attend as many meetings as they want. Family to Family is a NAMI signature education course taught by a team of family members who have been trained as educators and lasts 12 weeks. Shapiro hopes to work with NAMI Chicago to offer this course in collaboration with West Side hospitals and Community Programs. NAMI Chicago can also offer peer support programs and education groups for those living with mental illness on the West Side.

“NAMI needs to have presence on the West side,” Shapiro said. “They need to serve the African-American and Hispanic community. That’s my priority right now.”

Anyone who wants to attend or find out more about the third Saturday support group can call Shapiro at (718) 218-2102.