NAMI representatives share mental health support servicesby Jan Janes on November 14, 2019
Students and staff from across campus joined the Allied Health AH3 class – The Person in the Life Cycle – to hear representatives of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) present information about mental illness.
Sara Swanson and Rafal Klopotowski, representing NAMI, shared video and their personal journeys dealing with mental illness. Students completed a before and after survey reflecting their views about people with mental illness. Some related their own experiences, and others spoke of family members.
NAMI offers multiple programs, free of charge to participants, to support people living with mental illness, including family support, peer support, youth support and veteran support.
The program offered at Gavilan, In Our Own Voice, used short video segments to explain different challenges experienced by people with mental illness, and the two presenters shared their own stories.
Swanson grew up seeing people in her head who would talk to her, sometimes helping and sometimes hindering. She did not know anyone was different from that. A breakup with a boyfriend during high school resulted in more than a broken heart. The familiar voices were gone, new and negative voices came in. They convinced her that life had always been horrid, and she dropped out of school and lost contact with her friends. The battle to fend them off became more than she could manage. A visiting brother saved her from a suicide attempt, and she was hospitalized. She could not convince herself that what was in her head was not real.
“Those were my dark days,” said Swanson.
Klopotowski grew up in Poland, described living with emotional abuse in the family, and had his first mental breakdown in college. He couldn’t concentrate. After college he became very social, very active in performing arts, even while working full time. He would stay up three to four days at a time, people appreciated him, laughed at his jokes, and he married and started a family. While working on a new play, everything fell apart. He spent days in bed, had chronic pain, and was prescribed opioids, which also worked well for his anxiety. But the mental illness went undiagnosed, and no one wanted to work with him.
“I felt hopeless, useless, nobody cares,” said Klopotowski. “What’s the point of being here?”
Each shared their personal journey to where they are today.
“What helps,” said Swanson, “is opening the self to the risk of living.” She described recovery as an ongoing process, and her family supported her. It took years to find the right therapist. “And for six years,” she said, “I told them about my life, but not about the voices in my head.”
Medication is a critical component, as are coping skills. Swenson uses aromatherapy, cooking, or taking a shower to work through anxieties. When her daughter was small, reading a book to her was a powerful coping skill. “Love your coping skills,” she said. “Any little thing that gets you through the next moment, hour, day, week.”
Klopotowski agreed that the right medications are critical, but skipped taking them for three days, only to end up suicidal again.
“I didn’t know I would collect diagnoses,” he said. “But they were a relief.” The behaviors were just symptoms of the illnesses he had. “We usually have trouble accepting illness, but accepting the diagnoses helped.”
His coping skills embrace his lifestyle and include writing poetry and murder mystery novels, journals, reading history and studying psychology.
“For me, the best coping skill is helping others,” he said. Klopotowski began using NAMI services two years ago, now facilitates groups and works as a peer mentor to people who have just been released from the hospital. “I help them find their new ‘normal.’”
Both speakers emphasized to the students that people with mental illness have relationships, hold down jobs, own homes and are successful.
With each audience question, the NAMI representatives offered students detailed information about each of the NAMI programs available. For more information call 408-453-0400 or visit their website namisantaclara.org