NAMI-RI director vows assistance
The Block Island affiliate of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) recently hosted Cindy Elder, Executive Director of the NAMI state chapter at a special luncheon meeting.
Elder spent most of her two hours on island discussing state programs and resources the state might offer the local chapter, while also learning of the mental health needs of the island community.
Describing her background, Elder noted she had grown up in Barrington and was the child of a blended family in which her stepfather had lost his first wife to suicide. She said, “We were the real Brady Bunch." It was a time, she said, when no one was talking about mental health issues. However, her parents did.
“We became a family of nine where a lot of interesting stuff was going on and they brought us together with music and with Shakespearean plays,” she said. Elder credits her parents with fostering her desire to help people, which along with her strengths as a writer became the common theme of her work.
Subsequently, Elder studied journalism and worked as a TV reporter, did public relations for a hospice group and taught social justice at the Gordon School in East Providence, was Director of Communications at the R.I. Food Bank, and was most recently Executive Director of the Coggeshall Farm Museum in Bristol. She has a master’s degree from Brown University.
In recently taking up the post at NAMI-RI, Elder has identified several goals: one is to focus the state agency on communications and another on a re-affiliation project. She identified five county affiliates in Rhode Island: Providence (including the Central Falls and Woonsocket areas); Newport; Kent, Washington County, and Bristol County.
She noted an area that needed strengthening was in delivering “resource to affiliates in all ways.”
Island Chapter President Steve Hollaway said, “We’ve been trying to get help with [creating] a family support group. It just hasn’t happened.”
Elder said training was critical and suggested the state chapter might be able to pay for a local board member to attend a national training program. She added, “We need state trainers to come out to train people here.”
She noted that Rhode Island had only one trainer, who is also “a Professor of Moral Theology at Providence College.” At times, Elder said, the state borrowed trainers from the Mass. chapter, which had many more trainers.
Elder explained there were two kinds of training programs: one in family-to-family support and another one called “Connections,” which offered support from peer-to-peer.
The island group discussed which kind of program it should focus on first and decided it might be best to work with families. Elder pointed out that being part of a group can be exciting because beginning a conversation about stigmatized subjects can take them out of the shadows.
She gave the examples of autism and cancer, which were now part of mainstream conversation. She said the family-to-family class ran for 12 weeks, adding, “Ideally, it’s important for a group leader to see him or herself as a family member.”
Another possibility Elder offered in the attempt to reach out to children was to arrange for a group with “parents and teachers as allies, which [can] play an important role in thinking about destigmatizing.”
Elder described a program she’s worked on for high school students called “’Inside Mental Illness," which looks at a child’s experiences. She said she brought with her “a few college students who’ve worked through to a hopeful place.”
Warming to the idea, the group agreed that it might be good to offer a program in Parents and Teachers as Allies to students during the day and one in the evening for parents. Elder said, “I love the idea; it’s a good way to begin reaching out.” Members agreed to contact the island school to introduce the idea of the program.
In describing the origins of the local chapter, member Jim Hinthorn said, “This group came together because of a suicide.” Concurring, Hollaway added, “The family told me about how difficult it was to get help. There was no follow up.”
He described meeting Dr. Michael Brownstein, an island summer resident, who introduced Hollaway to Dr. Stephen Rasmussen at Brown University and Butler Hospital, who subsequently developed the telemedicine program NAMI-BI has maintained for several years.
Before she left to catch her ferry, Elder agreed to continue working with the local chapter, offering resources — both financial and personnel — to assist in creating community outreach and training programs.