|National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Multicultural Action Center Honors Lynne Saunders,
a NAMI African American Leader
Lynne reflects upon this honor (2004)
It seems like only yesterday, but it was twenty-three years ago that I answered a Washington Post want ad for a staff position at The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (it wasn’t called by its well-known acronym NAMI back then). Little did I know that I was not only embarking on a journey of uncovering the dark secrets about mental illness in my own African American family, but was developing the courage to speak publicly about mental illness whenever and wherever possible. When mental illness struck both my father and sister in the 70s, the family response was denial, secrecy, embarrassment, and frustration. There was no organized NAMI that we knew of that could have helped all of us learn about mental illnesses and more importantly, know that we were not alone. For us, the church was our first point of contact to hopefully find the answers and we found empathic individuals who wanted to be there for us, but they didn’t know anymore about mental illness than we did. When I arrived at NAMI, I had never read a book about mental illness and I immediately delved into reading everything on hand at the time. My awakening occurred after reading the first edition of Living with Schizophrenia by E. Fuller Torrey.
I am so very proud to be a part of NAMI and the work I do with the NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program that has given me so much respect for the heroism of both my relatives who are now deceased because of their mental illness. My greatest wish is to see more African American families attend the free 12-week classes underway in 45 states because far too many have never heard of the program, and my hope is that when they do, they will spread the word about it in the African American community. It’s a life-changing education program and African American families need to find that out for themselves.
According to the Surgeon General's report on mental health, less than a third of those with mental illness will seek treatment. Members of ethnic and racial minorities face additional barriers -- including racial discrimination, poverty, language barriers, and cultural prohibitions -- making access to care an arduous, uphill battle. Knowing that, there are thousands of African American families to be reached by NAMI and I want to do my part in doing so.
In celebration of Black History Month when recognition usually is given to an African American 'first', I’m proud that I can be recognized as the first African American national NAMI staff member and maybe that goes even for being the first on the state and local NAMI levels as well.