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NAMI volunteers offers support, information to families of psychiatric patients

The Record-Eagle - 1/6/2020

Jan. 5--TRAVERSE CITY -- The door to D-6 is locked.

Inside is Munson Medical Center's 17-bed, adult inpatient psychiatric unit. It's the only one within 100 miles.

One or two evenings a week, Bob White sits outside D-6 offering visitors information about the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the support it can offer them and those they're visiting.

NAMI is the largest grassroots mental health organization in the country dedicated to improving the lives of anyone affected by mental illness. NAMI Grand Traverse became an affiliate in 2017 and is an all-volunteer 501©3 nonprofit.

Outside D-6, there's no pressing visitors to accept any information -- he just tries to let them know it's available, White said. The 67-year-old Williamsburg resident is one of six trained NAMI volunteers who rotate evenings in the unit's lobby.

"I tell them, 'Look, go on and visit your relative. If you want some more information when you come out, I will be here to answer any questions you have,'" White said.

"It's a daunting, daunting task of trying to get into the maze which sometimes is the mental health system and trying to navigate your way through that in the process of trying to get help for yourself or for a family member," he added.

MMC previously tried hosting a support group for patients' families, but it didn't take off, said Terri LaCroix-Kelty, MMC behavior health director. Having a loved one in the psychiatric unit is a "really stressful, intense time" and adding another thing for families to do isn't ideal, she said.

Volunteers like White offer a way for families, and later patients, to connect with resources at their own pace, she said. They've been doing it for about a year, and she's heard no complaints, LaCroix-Kelty said.

"We chose Munson because we're right at the heart of when somebody needs us the most," NAMI Grand Traverse Board of Directors President Judy Barrett said.

White, like others in NAMI, knows what the people visiting D-6 are going through. He also knows what it's like to be on the other side of the door.

Doctors began treating him for depression when he was 19, White said, but it was two decades before the right combination of medications was found. During that time, he was hospitalized for a 30-day stay three times -- in 1981, 1989 and 1990 -- and survived a suicide attempt.

Being hospitalized the first time was terrifying -- he didn't know what to expect and old black and white movie portrayals weren't exactly comforting, White said. The fear dissipated as medications took effect and interactions with staff showed they were there to help, he said.

"There comes a time when you don't want to be hospitalized, but you know that you have to be," White said. "I would not be sitting here today if I wasn't."

"In one way, I'm a success story for good mental health treatment," he said. "I'm still here. I've had a wonderful life since then. I have absolutely nothing to complain about."

But he wanted to give something back and use his experiences to help others, White said.

White connected with local NAMI representatives in September at the Out of the Darkness community walk. He previously had tried to connect with a number of other mental health organizations, but with no success.

"I knew immediately that this (NAMI) is where I needed to be," White said. "This was an organization whose goals I completely embrace, somewhere where I thought that I could be of some benefit to other people."

Getting the chance to try to make a difference for people in crisis, to let them know there are others able and willing to support them in whatever way necessary is extremely rewarding, he said.

"If I've done that at some point, then I will have accomplished what I set out to do," White said.

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