By Linda Koopmann with Darlene Wetzel
This interview was completed via email since we were unable to meet safely in person. The questions in bold italics were posed by Linda Koopmann, newsletter editor, and the responses are from Darlene Wetzel, NAMI WC’s Community Program Coordinator.
We hope you enjoy learning about people like Darlene who keep NAMI Washtenaw moving forward during this pandemic. Future newsletters will introduce you to other NAMI Washtenaw staff members.
Darlene, what attracted you to NAMI Washtenaw County?
In 1998, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. I was very ill and was in and out of the hospital over the next 10 years. I became a member of NAMI WC through my friend, Barb Higman, around 2010.
What was your first volunteer involvement with the organization?
I enjoyed receiving the newsletter and tried working on the NAMI Walks activity one year. That didn’t seem to be a good fit for me, but I continued paying my membership dues and reading every article in the newsletter. I wanted to volunteer, but couldn’t find the right fit.
In 2013, I read an article in the newsletter about an education program called Peer-to-Peer (P2P) and the group of volunteers who were meeting to bring P2P to our county. I immediately joined the committee and got involved. Volunteer leaders Bob Nassauer and Pat Root welcomed me. I was impressed with the curriculum and wished it had been available to me when I was at my sickest.
Pat Root talked with other affiliates around the country, and we were advised that while the class was very helpful, it was hard for people living with a mental health challenge to make it to the 10 weekly classes. In fact, we were told the drop-out rate was 50%. That seemed very high, with participants missing out on a lot of good information. We decided we wanted to do better and designed an incentive program to see if we could reduce the frequent absences and high drop-out rate.
We planned a light meal so that participants could eat and visit when they arrived. Then we added a weekly gift-card drawing for those who arrived on time and stayed the whole two hours. During week two, each person got to choose a mental health book off a list; they would receive the book during week seven. I read a lot of books to make sure we had quality choices on the list!
We did a number of other drawings along the way which added excitement. And it worked! Three-fourths of our students graduated from the class!
After training to present and teach in the Ann Arbor community, I was invited to be Co-Coordinator of the P2P program. It was a lot of work, but it was rewarding to make such a difference in people’s lives. And my mental health improved, too!
What have been your other volunteer roles?
After initially co-coordinating the P2P program, I added other responsibilities, such as co-leading the Connection Support Group. I then took over the leadership of P2P. Around 2017, I was elected to the NAMI Washtenaw Board and served for three years. I also became active in the Hospital Initiative whereby I visited local hospital inpatient psychiatric units and shared my recovery story with patients; we also shared the NAMI programs that would be available to them when they were discharged. I frequently heard testimonies from people who had met our volunteers during their hospitalizations. Many reported the encouragement it gave them to know there was hope beyond their current crisis. Most of them said they had never heard of NAMI before we came and spoke with them. It’s a joy to watch them as they take P2P classes, stabilize, and go on to volunteer with NAMI. Many meaningful friendships have evolved from volunteering for NAMI.
In 2019, a member of my church made a serious suicide attempt. The family was so worried about what others would think that they would not allow the pastor to mention this individual in the Sunday service as someone needing prayer. In discussing the need for mental-health care and the stigma within our faith community, our Minister of Pastoral Care stated that one of her goals was to get people talking about mental health. I immediately offered that NAMI could help. Bob Nassauer and I met with the pastor and settled on bringing the Ending the Silence program to the church’s youth and their parents. Then we developed a four-week Adult Sunday School program that taught about mental health, mental illness, and the church’s response.
The second Sunday of the series was focused on crisis intervention and suicide. I started the discussion by asking, “Is suicide a sin?” We had quite a lively discussion, and everyone left aware of some viewpoints that they had never considered before.
When many expressed that they didn’t want the class to end, NAMI volunteer Susie Treber and I founded Washtenaw County’s first Faith Support Group. Six months later, we are still meeting monthly, currently on the Zoom online platform.
What is your current position?
In February of this year, I was hired by NAMI Washtenaw through a Community Mental Health (CMH) grant as a Community Programs Coordinator. My job is to become an ally with the Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, and Whitmore Lake areas to expand NAMI educational programs and support groups to this eastern part of the county that has not been served in the past. COVID-19 has slowed our progress, but we moved our programs online and have been reaching people who had no means of travel to Ann Arbor for our programs.
What other projects are you working on now?
I am starting a Young Adult P2P class with Corner Health Center medical clinic in Ypsilanti which will transition to a support group when the class ends. Also, in September we are beginning a Friends and Family Support Group for Washtenaw Community College (WCC) students who live in support of someone with a mental health challenge. In the future, we hope to form a Connection Support Group for WCC students.
I am also immersed in planning a Clergy Conference for Ypsilanti and Whitmore Lake Faith Leaders. Sponsored by a NAMI Faith Net grant that I submitted, we are offering a free, four-hour Zoom conference at the end of October. We hope to build relationships with local churches to provide mental health education to their congregations. So many people in our faith communities see mental illness as a personal failure of someone’s faith rather than a biological illness that needs treatment. A spiritual belief system, as well as compassionate spiritual support from our faith congregations, can be an important wellness tool.
What are your goals/ideas for future projects and why?
I hope to establish a relationship with the CMH Crisis Team to encourage them to take NAMI materials to individuals and families that are experiencing a mental health crisis. With permission from the family, the Crisis Team could also refer the individual or family to a trained NAMI team that would reach out by phone and offer peer support as a short-term bridge between the crisis and the time when their professional team puts together a treatment team.
I’ve spent many hours in the psychiatric ER waiting room, alone and scared. It would have made such a difference in my experience if there had been a compassionate volunteer to talk to or just to sit with. A goal I have is to establish a “NAMI in the Lobby” program for trained volunteers to be present in the psychiatric emergency room during peak hours to provide a compassionate and supportive presence, to share NAMI resources, and to provide hope that help is available.
What has involvement with NAMI Washtenaw meant to you?
I’m proud to have been a long-time NAMI volunteer and now a staff member. I have grown and stabilized more than I could have dreamed was ever possible. I still have my rough times, but now I know what to do to stabilize myself.
The NAMI team of dedicated volunteers and staff is making a real difference in our community!