Audrey Kissinger is a brave woman to come forth and tell her story. For her entire life, she has lived with a panic and anxiety disorder, defined as a mental illness. In addition, her son Joe was also diagnosed with a mental illness as a young boy. Audrey knows all too well the stigma of living with these illnesses. “One of the hardest aspects of having a mental illness is the stigma of it,” said Audrey. “There is a lot of fear about it, and most people are lost when it comes to what people are going through who suffer with these diseases.”
That was certainly the case when Joe was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the mid-1970s, just when he was hitting his teenage years. Before his illness manifested itself, Joe was a happy and interactive kid. By the time he was 10, he could read, write and speak French fluently, and one of his favorite subjects was high school calculus. “When he was about 14, I noticed he was always droopy and losing weight,” said Audrey. “Then he told me he wanted to commit suicide.”
The treatment for his illness was a combination of hospitalization, mind-altering medications and therapy. Joe spent three weeks in the hospital as doctors tried to figure out his diagnosis and stabilize his condition. During this time, Audrey was busy raising her other sons and coping with her own issues of anxiety and panic attacks. And she felt very much alone. “I really just wanted to talk to someone who was going through what I was,” she said. “I felt like there was no one I could turn to.”
It was the late 1970s, and although Audrey was raised in Sugar Camp, she had moved with her husband and family to the Racine area. Soon after Joe’s diagnosis, she heard about the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and decided to attend a meeting. “That was the best thing I could have done,” she said. “I found others who would listen to me and I got good advice about mental illness, and this organization gave me a way to become more informed.”
NAMI was founded by Bev Young and her friend, Harriet Shetler. Both Bev and Harriet have sons who suffer from a mental illness. Bev lives in Verona, but she enjoys a summer cottage near Boulder Junction. “Before NAMI there really were no support groups for people with mental illness or their families,” said Bev. “Like Audrey, I felt very much alone.”
Over a lunch date one day in 1977, Bev and Harriet had decided there must be many others who were confused and alone, longing for a place to turn for educational opportunities, information and advocacy. “It’s like if you were to go see a doctor about an illness, it could cost you a lot of money,” said Bev. “But if you have a doctor come and talk to a group about an illness, it’s usually for free. What we really wanted to do was start an organization that could help people learn about mental illness, and also support family members who lived with someone who suffered with these diseases.”
In April of 1977, the two women organized a meeting at the Cuba Club in Madison. There were 13 people who attended and it was decided the organization would be called The Alliance for the Mentally Ill or AMI, which means “friend” in French. Within six months, 75 people had joined the group.
Seeing how fast their organization was growing, Bev and Harriet decided to have a national conference. Their goal was to host at least 35 people in this first endeavor that would be held in Madison in September of 1979. They were overwhelmed when 284 representatives from 59 groups representing 29 states signed up for the convention. At the end of that first conference, it was decided the organization would became the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Today the organization is based in Arlington, Va., and has more than 1,000 local affiliates that are comprised of consumers, family members, friends of people with mental illness and professionals. There are 34 affiliates in Wisconsin and other NAMI affiliates are scattered in communities all over the United States, boasting a membership of 2,000 individuals.
In fact, when Audrey retired and moved back to Sugar Camp, she became the founder of a local chapter of NAMI. “When I moved back up here, there really were no support groups for mental illness,” she said. “NAMI had helped me so much when I lived in southern Wisconsin, I wanted to bring that up to the Northwoods.”
Now the NAMI Northern Lakes chapter meets the fourth Tuesday of every month and there is a support group meeting held the second Saturday of every month. In fact, Bev will be the speaker at the next NAMI Northern Lakes meeting on Tuesday, May 28, at 7 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church on Arbutus St. in Rhinelander.
Audrey can’t wait. “Bev and I have become very good friends over the years,” she said. “We both encourage anyone who suffers from or has a family member or friend who suffers from a mental illness to attend. There’s a lot to be learned about mental illness and a lot of stigmas about it. NAMI is a good way to become more informed and to learn ways not only to cope, but also to advocate either for yourself or someone you love.”
To learn more about NAMI, call Audrey at (715) 272-1294 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit the organization’s website at NAMI.org.