I first walked into a NAMI meeting in the fall of 1997. New to peer groups, I found the education and support I needed. I also found something more, a role in systems advocacy. I was instantly introduced to the culture of advocacy. Our then-president divided herself in roles which included running a Women’s Group at our county jail and assessing the services and supports for people with mental illness at all of the state’s county jails. Her predecessor was busy serving as NAMI New Jersey’s liaison to the VA Mental Health Services at East Orange and Lyons (a pair of facilities where we now do monthly In Our Own Voice presentations). Other active members were sitting on our county’s Mental Health Board and Acute Care Systems Review Committee.
The opportunity to move into an advocacy role clicked with me. I think it was enhanced by a holy day talk I had heard a few years before. The gist of the Rabbi’s sermon was “we all have busy lives, and spend time earning our livings, and taking care of ourselves and our families. Little time is left for helping our communities. But it is how you spend that little piece that matters so much.”
I soon found myself in a range of advocacy-related roles. Sitting on county and agency boards, writing an advocacy-heavy NAMI newsletter, performing Hospital Outreach/Patient Education (now approaching 900 sessions), and mentoring many others in systems and peer advocacy roles, Over the years, I have moved into a statewide role within NAMI New Jersey, evaluated contract proposals, keynoted conferences, testified before legislators, developed anti-stigma materials, and more. I found myself sometimes “preaching” recovery-oriented philosophies which were at odds with some of the system, confronted with questions like “who says so,” and “what is the evidence?” As a remedy to this, I took a course in Psychiatric Rehabilitation, which led to a certificate, which led to a second Master’s Degree (and 16 credits towards a PhD). My new credentials led to a role on the board of my professional society (I am now serving as Public Policy Chair), part-time employment, a small private practice, and the chance to draft a textbook chapter and be a contracted teacher for peer specialists on the topics of “Stigma and Advocacy”. I continue to wear about six hats in my local NAMI (hint: volunteers always needed).
I have faced many challenges in this journey. The system itself and its slow rate of change are upsetting. Things I have had to get better at have included “saying no”/planning needed downtime, time management; face recognition, organization, and diplomacy. All of these are works in progress (especially the last). I believe and hope that my advocacy journey has been good for me, good for the system, and good for the organizations and people I serve. I am grateful to NAMI for giving me my start, and ask that you support NAMI NJ and its important work.
Jay Yudof is NAMI NJ’s Recovery Programs Coordinator