NAMI President Carol Williamson with members and peer facilitators. Photo by Maria Grusauskas.

NAMI President Carol Williamson with members and peer facilitators. Photo by Maria Grusauskas.

Descending on Thimann Lecture Hall at 8am on a Thursday morning is like joining a flock of zombies: coffee cups and notebooks loosely clutched, we shuffle through the remnants of last night’s dreams towards habitual seats in the 300-seat hall. By 8:12am, though, it’s apparent that this isn’t just another morning in the risers of PSYC170, Professor David A. Hoffman’s abnormal psychology class at UC–Santa Cruz.

The waking up begins with the soft and electric speech of Carol Williamson, a Pajaro mom whose son, diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 16, took his own life at 24.

Williamson is the current president of the Santa Cruz affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an organization that seeks to educate, support and make serious changes in the mental health sector.

“I was extremely frustrated because they would not involve me. He was 19. And the doctors that he had felt strongly that he needed to individuate,” says Williamson of her son, who was studying at UC–Santa Barbara when things took a turn for the worse.  “All of the things that normal therapy teaches therapists about individuation—he’d already done that. He was back home, and I needed to know how to help him.”

Williamson’s exclusion from the supposed healing regimen of her son—because of his adult status, coupled with the doctors’ belief that her son needed to be more independent—is her deepest regret. It fuels her mission as president, which she began four years ago when NAMI had just 50 local members. Today it has 180.

“I just really wanted other families to not go through what I went through,” says Williamson.

NAMI’s free educational classes and support groups help everyone involved: the brother diagnosed with schizophrenia, his doctor, his mother, his girlfriend. “And then with that education you become a spokesman,” says Williamson.

The five spokespeople she’s brought this morning have been mental health clients who all facilitate peer support groups for NAMI. Their stories weave through an underworld of pain, loneliness and the fascinating beauty of the “other dimension,” as one panelist calls it. There is less credence given to actual diagnoses (most have been given multiple diagnoses throughout their lives) than there is to acceptance, to asking for help and reaching out to others who would otherwise be alone.

“Most of my life I felt alone, and now I don’t feel so alone. I realize my aloneness, but it’s OK because I know there’s lots of other people who are just as alone as me and that’s comforting in a lot of ways,” says Adrian Bernard, 39, who encountered his first imaginary friend in elementary school, and whose story details the 9-month psychotic break he had in college, a time of spirit guides, communicating telepathically with teachers and the world’s most beautiful music piped in through the synapses of his own mind.

Naomi Fuss, 40, says that the give-and-take interaction of peer groups has been crucial to her stability. “Looking back, I mean, I was put in four-point restraints. I was seen as a complete menace to society,” she says. “It was just huge to find out that I had some peace inside of me, that I had a center I could find inside of me and that I could articulate myself and that I could be compassionate and I had a gentle way about me with other people.”

All five of the panelists’ talks are spliced with empowerment. Bernard, whose friend and longterm advocate calls mental health clients “the last minority,” dreams of a civil rights movement that reverses the dehumanizing process of the current system. “All of the factions are kind of out there jostling for where we stand. And I think at some point there’s going to be a complete collaboration,” says Bernard.


NAMI hosts retiring director of county mental health Dr. Leslie Tremaine for a lecture on self-care on Wednesday, July 18 at 6:30pm at Live Oak Senior Center, 1777 Capitola Rd., Santa Cruz. Free.