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Overview of the NAMI African American Family Outreach Project (AAFOP)

Ruth Karr, Project Coordinator


A number of African American educators, pastors and mental health professionals (with whom the project coordinator has worked over a period of twenty years as an advocate for persons with mental illness and their families) were invited to a meeting with the Board of Directors on July 29, 2004.  The Board was present as “listeners”, and our African American guests were asked to tell us how to go about providing information portfolios to families of African Americans with serious mental illness, so as to get them into treatment.  The NAMI philosophy is that the stronger the family, the  likelier the ill relative is to get into and stay in treatment for brain disorders of serious mental illness, namely schizophrenia, schizo-affective, bipolar (manic-depressive), unipolar (major depressive), and some of the severe anxiety disorders—such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic attacks or disorders.  Regardless of the disorder, all are no-fault brain disorders.  Families, when provided their own support network, information on the nature and treatment of SMI, and resource referral, become stronger families and more capable of encouraging  their mentally ill relative to receive treatment.

*Around twenty five guests attended, and gave a range of suggestions and ideas to reach the families.

Afterwards, the suggestions were  categorized into five areas.  Each African American guest was provided the list, as was our Board members, and asked to list the five areas in the priority they felt should be used, with number one being most effective.  There was consensus among both board members and our African American associates in the ranking, with working through churches ranked as the most effective way to proceed.  The associates were also asked to select among the five categories the areas they would participate on the project.  At least 75% preferred to work with their own church leaders as a “point of contact” when families turn to the church for help with a mentally ill relative.  Others selected more than one category, from working through the media, through the education system, criminal justice/court system and private mental health clinics.

One suggestion was to display AAFOP materials at the annual 100 Black Men of America Health Fair at Alabama A & M Univ.  This was done on September 11, 2004.

The associates all received Certificates of Appreciation from NAMI Huntsville as an observance of Mental Illness Awareness Week in October, 2004.

The Honorable Municipal Court Judge Sybil Cleveland, an associate, is cooperating with the project coordinator by providing information portfolios to all families attending Mental Health Court sessions who have relatives being diverted from incarceration into treatment. 

On December 9, 2004, the AAFOP met with the Board of Directors for a Pizza lunch meeting to view a video film about Depression among African Americans, and to discuss ways of implementing the project.  Each associate was provided a copy of the film for working with churches, and two copies of the info packets to place into the hands of families they may come into contact as church volunteers. 

Two electronic media Associates, Elizabeth Sloan-Ragland of AAMU   WJAB Radio/TV, and Kenneth Anderson of Oakwood’s WOCG Radio scheduled public service announcements on the project, and each scheduled three radio programs.   Director Sloan-Ragland will conduct three TV broadcasts and WOCG Radio will have more programs during 2005.  Associate Jacqueline Wilson, now a NAMIH board member,  is arranging for the African American newspaper “Speakin’ Out” for print coverage, and we are hoping that David Holden of “The Huntsville Times” will cover AAFOP soon. We also plan to schedule  interviews on WEUP. 

Both David Holden and Municipal Court Magistrate Will Culver have expressed that they wish to work with us as associates. Holden will develop a Huntsville Times article on AAFOP. Also recently  Dr. Stephen Taylor became an AAFOP member.  Another black psychiatrist,  Dr. Trevor Lindsay has been invited to participate.  Dr. Taylor has spoken on AAMU’s WJAB  in an interview by news director Tulani Prince-Brackett.

Thus far, the coordinator has kept in touch outside meetings by mailing a short quarterly AAFOP newsletter, “AAFOP Extra” to all associates, updating them on recent project events and spotlighting African Americans with mental illness who experienced successful treatment and moved along the road of recovery.  A Spring AAFOP Extra will go out soon, and another luncheon meeting of our African American associates and the Board of Directors will be held in mid-April.

An article on AAFOP was published in the Feb.’05 edition of a national NAMI Multicultural Partner Coalition newsletter, going out to over 50 multicultural organizations involved with outreach on mental illness issues.  (As a result, NAMI Huntsville is now being asked to provide "how to get started" information to other local and state NAMI affiliates. )The primary goal of the project is to get up-to-date, specific information into the hands of families so that they can be more supportive and encouraging to their relatives, and to better cope with their own feelings and distress. A secondary goal is to get more African American families into NAMI.  We who are already in NAMI know what its like to struggle with mental illness alone, and how important it is to connect with others who “walk in our shoes”.  By increasing the NAMI membership, we all become stronger and have greater impact at local, state and national levels.  “In numbers there is strength!”  

Whether more African Americans join the membership or not, our meetings are always open to all; no one is required or pressured to become NAMI members.  NAMI will do whatever is possible to ensure there are no barriers- culture, ethnicity, or economic status-to those who wish to affiliate with us.  While our community is multicultural and of differing colors, we pledge to our share in helping to make the Huntsville-Madison County Community a more inclusive and healthy one!


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