The organization on the front lines of mental health awareness, advocacy and education has been around for four decades, but the work has ratcheted up exponentially in recent years. Many of those helping shed the stigma are among those whose lives were suddenly upended by the tragic consequences of unchecked mental health conditions.
Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.
As an active board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Santa Cruz County chapter, Gail Pellerin helped pinpoint an apt Valentine’s Day message.
Practice self love.
After the suicide death of her husband, Tom, in 2018, Pellerin needed reassuring messages like that more than ever. And a group she had vaguely heard about before crisis struck — NAMI, which rhymes with mommy — suddenly became a lifeline.
“NAMI was a huge help in giving me tools to work through the situation,” said Pellerin, the recently elected District 28 California State Assembly member and longtime county clerk. “It was about learning not to take it personally, not feeling like a failure.”
As the country’s mental health struggles ratcheted to crisis levels during the pandemic, so too did the demand for the type of educational, outreach and advocacy resources that NAMI provides. That has made the organization celebrating its 40th year in this county more important than ever — and more dedicated to chipping away at the stigma that continues to keep so many people suffering in silence.
One of the most stressful things about having a mental health condition in your family is that it can feel like you are totally alone in this.
— Anastasia Baboulevitch, NAMI program director
“One of the most stressful things about having a mental health condition in your family is that it can feel like you are totally alone in this,” said Anastasia Baboulevitch, NAMI’s program director. “Stigma, a lack of education, a lack of resources and support — all of those have historically been part of that.
“To have an organization speaking openly about it, offering accessible resources, people feel more like they can show up. Just to be able to see, ‘Oh, there’s other people like me, there are other families like me.’”
NAMI’s primary purpose — through education, advocacy and resources — is to connect those in need to others who have been in their situation.
‘Living in recovery’
That recognition of not being alone is exactly what Baboulevitch needed a decade ago. The South Bay native stumbled upon NAMI while attending UC Santa Cruz and it’s been a saving grace ever since.
First via support groups and then an eight-week peer-to-peer class, she found her people. There were few who could understand what had happened to her as a high school junior at age 16 when a psychotic break and suicide attempt led her to hospitalization and a bipolar I diagnosis. (While it can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes, it is the more extreme version of the mood disorder that afflicts roughly 5.7 million Americans.)
Though Baboulevitch managed to fight through that episode, get stabilized on the proper medication and fulfill her college dream, she didn’t have the kind of crucial college-life supports that emerged during her psychology class one day.
“These speakers from NAMI came in and shared their stories of ‘living in recovery’ and I’d never heard of that concept,” she said. “I found people who really understood what I was going through, which led to my feeling empowered, and being surrounded by more resources than ever before.”
Today, Annie, as most know her, is one of the first names mentioned by those who have witnessed the organization’s growing influence on the community.
That, longtime observers note, is the flywheel-effect impact of NAMI. It’s fueled by strong women like Pellerin, Baboulevitch and longtime president Carol Williamson openly turning their own stories of struggle and pain into empowerment and resources for others.
“I had never thought about suicide until it affected my family,” Pellerin said. “But now that I’m in it, I’m not going anywhere. And I’m going to be a loud voice and try to get everybody else I know to be thinking about it. That’s what needs to happen: Each person impacted needs to ignite that flame in everybody else around them.”
Building it up
NAMI Santa Cruz County was still being run on a shoestring budget, out of the trunk of Carol and Jim Williamson’s car, when the couple got more deeply involved in 2003.
The Williamsons came to NAMI after losing their 24-year-old son Nate, who had bipolar disorder, to suicide in 1997, the retired Pajaro Valley Unified School District director of purchasing wrote in a remembrance she titled “My Story of Life Interrupted.”
“My grief was overwhelming,” she wrote. “My guilt and frustration and anger over the system’s inadequacies, and my own inadequacies to save my son. I did not learn enough about how to find help. I hadn’t found how to have hope.”
But she threw herself into the hard work of building those resources for others — and working to improve those inadequacies. It ranged from forming peer support groups and classes in both English and Spanish to administering an education course for providers at the county’s behavioral health department and holding crisis intervention training for local law enforcement.
When a family health situation forced Williamson to step back from her two decades of NAMI work in 2022, she was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the organization and given her own proclamation by the county board of supervisors. It lauded her for evolving NAMI “from an all-volunteer organization to a staff of 20 employees running 10 bilingual programs to serve 6,700 community members.”
My life — the and lives of so many others — has been forever changed because she exists.
— NAMI board member Melissa Watrous on Carol Williamson
Of the NAMI Lifetime Achievement award, board member Melissa Watrous said: “My life — the and lives of so many others — has been forever changed because she exists.”
A focus on kids
In 2013, Williamson borrowed an idea from a NAMI chapter in Illinois and introduced an educational outreach program called “Ending The Silence” at local middle and high schools. It involves “Mental Health 101” material as well as presentations by young adults who share their own lived experiences with mental health challenges.
A decade later, the program has grown and there are discussions happening with the County Office of Education to integrate it into all local schools. Noeli Perez, NAMI’s program director for South County, said there has been a huge spike in outreach from parents and kids in the largely Spanish-speaking area seeking resources and education.
“We have a Spanish helpline and there are a lot more calls to find out more about youth services and youth support groups,” she said.
County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah called NAMI “a pivotal partner” during this time of “mental health crisis students are experiencing.”
“Through NAMI’s Ending The Silence program, students, staff and parents can learn about the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions and how to recognize early warning signs,” he said. “Never have these services been more needed, which is why we are partnering with NAMI to increase the availability of its workshops and presentations as part of our comprehensive focus on school community wellness.”
Never have these services been more needed.
Baboulevitch said progress is clearly being made on openness to discussing mental health, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to individuals finding the resources they need — particularly in light of the current moment.
A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Monday cited record levels of violence, sadness and suicide risk for teenage girls. That follows the declaration of a national state of emergency in children’s mental health in October 2021 by the American Academy of Pediatrics and 77,000 physicians, and a crisis warning by the U.S. Surgeon General in 2022.
“I see a hopeful trend of more young people speaking out,” Baboulevitch said. “And at the same time, there are still so many young people that are uncomfortable seeking help — they feel it’s their fault or something to be ashamed of. Those are things I still hear often.
“That’s such a big thing for our organization, breaking that stigma and letting people know that it is a medical condition and there are resources available to them.”
Ratcheting down stigma
Pellerin was a loud advocate for a local suicide prevention support line before the state launched the 988 program last year. She points to the sad story of Mateo Deihl in Scotts Valley as a reminder of how good consequences can emerge from tragedy.
Since the 15-year-old died by suicide a year ago after being racially bullied by fellow Scotts Valley High School students, a community has galvanized and ratcheted up pressure on the school district to put better supports in place.
One year ago, a 15-year-old freshman who exuded universal kindness took his own life. His parents say they detailed in...
“It’s a huge, devastating loss to not have Mateo with us,” Pellerin said. “But we also now know that people are more aware of how their words and their actions matter and how they impact people and how we really need to call ourselves into check and focus on kindness, focus on civility, focus on caring for our fellow human being and not be so hateful.
“There’s just a lot of anger and hate pent up in a lot of people and it comes out in mass shootings and it comes out in bullying. There’s so much work we need to do, but I really feel like there’s an awareness now from a lot more people when I raise the issue of mental health.”
That’s something Pellerin is doing a lot these days, from her district that straddles both sides of Highway 17 to her new digs in Sacramento. She even recently got to bend the ear of Gov. Gavin Newsom, whom she said was “very receptive” to her ideas on mental health, and she hopes to further those conversations over the next two years.
“The problem is that we really don’t focus on mental health until it’s a crisis,” she said. “We need to be focusing on it every single day. We need to be teaching it in our schools. We have first aid classes, but we don’t have mental health classes. Our kids are screened for vision and hearing, but there’s no screening for mental health.”
After retiring from her role as county clerk last year, Gail Pellerin is now focused on mental health advocacy and...
If you had asked her before Tom’s death in 2018, Pellerin probably wouldn’t know how crucial those developments could be moving forward. But after surviving that struggle and continuing to see young people struggle, she doesn’t want to think where mental health education would be without the organization out front.
“Thank God we have organizations like NAMI that are out there doing the support work on the front lines, helping people and connecting people,” she said.