In August 2017, NAMI Western Nevada (NAMI WNV) and Northern Nevada Correctional Center (NNCC) began a partnership that implemented a NAMI Connection Recovery Support Group in a correctional setting. Nevada was the second state in the nation to offer this support group within the prison system.

The first training NAMI WNV held to train the facilitators for the group included 11 people who were new to NAMI and were hesitant to speak openly about mental illness. While they didn’t know how the participants would receive the program, the future facilitators were encouraged by the NAMI Principles of Support — a strategy unique to NAMI support groups that includes 12 principles (such as “we will see the individual first, not the illness”) that guide attendees toward mindful ways to frame their experiences with mental illness.

The program began with one support group designated for a select number of inmates. One of the biggest hurdles to launching the program was the inmates’ perception that mental illness is a form of weakness within a subculture that discourages any displays of weakness.

In order to help overcome the stigma, we changed the dialogue from “mental illness” to “mental wellness.” NAMI WNV promoted the group to inmates with the sentiment that everyone has mental health. And they should work toward their mental wellness, especially since most incarcerated males have experienced depression, anxiety and trauma at some point in their lives.

This approach resonated with the inmates and increased participation. As the number of participants increased, so did the demand for more groups. Over the last two years, the program has expanded to include 13 NAMI Connection Recovery Support Groups and one NAMI Conexión (the Spanish version of the support group). Each group meets weekly.

Helping Inmates Manage Their Stressors

A key component of the program is maintaining a strong connection between the NAMI Affiliate and group facilitators. One of the ways NAMI WNV strengthens their facilitator relationships is through monthly team meetings with the group facilitators, the NAMI State Trainer, NNCC psychologists and caseworkers. These meetings address issues that arise in groups and provide additional training on specific topics such as suicide prevention and men’s depression. We also identify program needs and challenges, and strategies to address them.

All group facilitators are members of NAMI WNV, giving them a connection to the NAMI community. To maintain the NAMI relationship and support when inmates are released, NAMI WNV provides them information about their local affiliate. This includes the location and time of any NAMI Connection Recovery Support Group in their area, volunteer opportunities and a contact at that affiliate.

Since the program’s implementation and expansion, psychologists at NNCC have noted a reduction in inmates requesting to speak with them about anxiety and stressors. Inmates are now more likely to discuss these issues in the group and receive the support they need to better manage their stressors. Many group participants are learning coping skills they may not have gained earlier in life. While mental health staff are still available to help, NNCC psychologists are able to focus more time on inmates with higher levels of need.

Bringing Inmates into the NAMI Community

The all-volunteer program now includes over 20 NAMI Connection Recovery Support Group facilitators and four NAMI community volunteers. In 2019, these volunteers contributed over 1,800 combined hours to the programs and groups. When asked why the program mattered to her, program volunteer Kathy McIntosh stated, “It’s a wonderful opportunity to give back and help people better themselves, so they do well when they get out of prison.”

Through this partnership, we have been able to implement multiple NAMI programs and support Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training — and we have begun to change how NNCC views mental illness. In September 2019, the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 719, sponsored a walk for mental health awareness to support NAMI WNV, raising $10,000. Warden Isidro Baca, 117 inmates and 39 staff and correction officers participated in the walk, showing that mental health matters for the entire community.

Thanks to these successes, the partnership has continued to expand into a full-spectrum program of mental health awareness and support involving inmates, non-custody staff and correctional officers. The partnership developed programs slowly, building off each success to create a sustainable and replicable initiative that is effecting cultural change at NNCC.

Our wish for the next 40 years is that individuals with mental illness are diverted from incarceration to the appropriate levels of care in their communities. While this is the goal, it is also important that we continue to provide support for individuals with mental illness who are presently incarcerated.

Laura Yanez is Executive Director of NAMI Western Nevada and lead volunteer for the Northern Nevada Correctional Center program.

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