How Interning At A Mental Health Nonprofit Taught Me About Acceptance

by Alivia R.

Since January, I have been interning at the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) Massachusetts.

Although I have only been working here for a mere four months, the overall experience has already taught me more than any other intern position ever has.

For those who don't know what NAMI is, let me give you a bit of background: NAMI is a nonprofit mental health organization that improves the quality of life for people who suffer from mental illnesses, and their families, through educational programs, support groups, outreach, a revitalized help line and grassroots advocacy.

Part of what makes NAMI unique is all of its programs are taught by peers (people who have lived with or experienced mental illness and who can relate to patients on a personal level).

Every single one of its programs is also offered free of charge, which is why its fundraisers are so crucially important.

Its largest fundraiser, NAMIWalks, is coming up on May 16 at Artesani Park in Brighton, MA. This walkathon is an incredibly important, inspiring and stigma-busting event to the organization.

It gives hope to all those struggling and raises funds for all of NAMI's incredible programs.

I am not writing this post today to simply tell you about NAMI.

If you were that interested, you probably would have Googled it yourself.

Rather, I am writing this post to tell you about three important lessons I learned while interning at this life-changing organization:

1. The importance of working in an understanding and judgment-free work environment

I have never understood how some people can be so accepting of physical illnesses, but not of mental illnesses.

Having breast cancer and suffering from depression should be treated the same way: with compassion and care.

They are both unfortunate illnesses, and the only aspect that separates the two is one is physical and one is mental -- it is that simple.

Everyone working for or associated with NAMI either suffers from some form of mental illness or has a loved someone who does.

This brings a genuine sense of understanding and compassion into the office.

I have never been afraid to mention my anxiety disorder to my coworkers, and they are never afraid to disclose information to me.

During my last internship, I had to take a short leave of absence after landing in the hospital with a panic attack.

However, due to shame and embarrassment, I didn't feel comfortable disclosing the true reason why. Instead, I said I had to take time off for a physical illness.

If something like that happened while working at NAMI, I know I would feel comfortable enough to be upfront and honest with the office about it. I truly believe this is how every single workplace should be.

The sad reality is every one in four people has a mental illness. Stigma needs to be eliminated in the workplace.

2. The importance of being passionate about what you do

After various internship positions in the wrong field, I was left feeling hopeless about my future career.

I've never understood how some people are able to live their entire lives hating their jobs. I would be absolutely miserable, and I'd be too stubborn to put up with it.

Ever since I was little, I have always been interested in psychology and self-help. I always wanted to understand why I felt so different from everyone else.

Yet, it wasn't until my second year in college I changed my major to psychology.

After semesters of enjoying my classes, I knew in my heart I made the right decision. Working at NAMI has confirmed that fact.

Each day, whether I speak to someone over the phone, through email or in person, I feel as if I am making a difference.

I feel like I can connect with and relate to those who suffer from mental illnesses, and I feel so determined and inspired to help in any way I can.

And, let me tell you, I am not the only passionate person in the office.

All NAMI employees are just as passionate about what they do; it's contagious.

Whenever my boss talks about NAMIWalks, passion pours out of her. It is because of this they managed to raise $570,878 at last year's event.

3. The importance of stopping the stigma and ending the negative associations with mental illness

One of my favorite stigma-busting programs NAMI offers is In Our Own Voice (IOOV).

It is a 90-minute presentation by two people with life experience, who discuss their dark days, treatment, recovery and acceptance.

It's a very powerful presentation, and I was left completely and utterly awed by the end of it.

The best part about IOOV is it demonstrates there is no stereotypical bipolar, depressive, schizophrenic, etc.

Most of the time, you cannot tell what mental illness people have just by looking at them.

When I first blogged about my anxiety disorder two years ago, the Facebook messages and texts started pouring in from friends, people I hadn't spoken to in years and even strangers.

Most of them applauded me for my courage to openly blog about my disorder, and then, they admitted something personal about themselves and how they can relate.

This just goes to show the power of vulnerability.

People need to keep talking. It is the most effective way to bust the stigma.

A mental illness, just like a physical illness, does not define who someone is.