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Creating Understanding About Mental Illness
Suzanne Andriukaitis never knows what to expect when she wakes up in the morning.Asked what a typical day is like at The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Greater Chicago (NAMI-GC)

Creating Understanding About Mental Illness

Suzanne Andriukaitis never knows what to expect when she wakes up in the morning.Asked what a typical day is like at The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Greater Chicago (NAMI-GC)

Suzanne Andriukaitis never knows what to expect when she wakes up in the morning.

Asked what a typical day is like at The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Greater Chicago (NAMI-GC), Andriukaitis said with a laugh, “There is no such thing.”

She might be busy writing a letter on behalf of the mentally ill to a newspaper editor, explaining to a group how different parts of the brain function or developing a new program to help people better understand how crises escalate for the mentally ill.

For 15 years, Andriukaitis has been working as executive director of NAMI of Greater Chicago. Both NAMI-GC and the national organization are in their 30th year of providing much help to the mentally ill and educating family members, friends and others about different mental disorders. Andriukaitis is a licensed clinical social worker, and before NAMI she worked at the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute.

Betty Frazier, an administrative assistant at NAMI-GC since February 2001, spoke highly of working with Andriukaitis. “She’s a real dynamo,” Frazier said. “She’s kind of a Renaissance woman. She can do practically anything that she sets her mind to, and she has a sense of humor and she has a strong work ethic.”

Also, Frazier said that when Andriukaitis took over NAMI-GC that it was “in the red, so to speak,” but she “brought it back into the black” before Frazier began working with NAMI-GC.

Andriukaitis stays busy and productive, and she has accomplished a lot in her 15 years at NAMI. For example, she started in 1995 the Family to Family Educational Program, a 12-week program that helps to educate and enlighten friends and family members of the mentally ill about the disorders that their loved ones are dealing with. Also, in 2003 she helped launch Pathways to Recovery, an eight-week class that helps the mentally ill and others set positive goals and try to achieve them.

In addition, in fall 2004, Andriukaitis helped to form a 40-hour weeklong crisis intervention program to train the Chicago Police Department to better understand how to deal with escalating mental health crises. In the program, officers are trained in small groups of 25. “We were instrumental in getting that program approved to go forward,” she said.

“Our education programs are educating people about serious mental illnesses, and it’s really an important part of what we do,” Andriukaitis said.

According to the group’s web site, NAMI aims “to provide hope and improve the quality of life for those in the greater Chicago area whose lives are affected by serious mental illness by providing information & referrals, education, support, advocacy, and active community outreach.”

Andriukaitis gets much positive feedback about all of NAMI’s programs. “We get excellent feedback about all of our programs,” she said. “For the Family to Family program, I’ve heard people say things like the program saved their lives, that understanding what is going on with their family member helped them to act in a more supportive way with their family member. And for Pathways to Recovery, the feedback is that people feel more empowered and how to manage their lives.”?

Also, she said of the police program, “The officers are exceedingly grateful for the increased information that helps them to understand what is going on with people when people are in a crisis.” Also, feedback from the community is that it is a “wonderful change to have officers come who are knowledgeable about what’s going on with people who might be having a mental health crisis and that there’s just a total change in which the officers approach the situation,” and that leads to better outcomes for everyone, she said.

Programs that NAMI-GC offers include the following:

  • Provide an information and referral hotline that receives more than 5,000 calls annually for assistance in dealing with serious mental illness
  • Provide informational publications on all aspects of mental illnesses, including a wallet-size resource card that is a guide to key services in Chicago and is distributed throughout the Chicago area
  • Provide family and patient support group meetings in the NAMI office as well as at many sites throughout greater Chicago
  • Provides an excellent, up-to-date lending library, a recently expanded job readiness program for mental health consumers who are looking to return to employment
  • Provide educational meetings and programs for members and the public including the 12-week Family to Family Education Course, and an eight-week educational course entitled Pathways to Recovery.

In addition to the programs that NAMI-GC offers, its web site is highly informative and educational. For instance, you can type in schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder to learn a lot more about those disorders. The web site also lists various support and advocacy groups.

Recent Chicago Tribune articles have reported that Illinois relies heavily on nursing homes to house the mentally ill and that it is hard to find affordable, secure, reliable housing for them. “Certainly we’re concerned about the chronically mentally ill residing in nursing homes in Illinois” because it’s an inappropriate venue in many cases, Andriukaitis said. “And there’s been too little oversight, too little everything about the nursing home situation here in Illinois.”

While many depend on NAMI-GC for help, running it isn’t easy with just two full-time staffers, two part-time workers and more than 100 volunteers. “Because we are a not-for-profit, we are challenged constantly [with how] to fund our programs,” Andriukaitis said.

Also, she said, “Right now Illinois is facing a terrible budget problem, and we desperately need for there to be a tax increase in order to provide additional funding for mental health services. And that needs to happen now.”

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