For this article, Md Hamja interviewed Spencer Walz, a long standing member of the NAMI Washtenaw volunteer community, who is stepping down as the leader of our young adult support group. In his interview with Md, Spencer shared some of his personal story and described his experience volunteering with NAMI Washtenaw. We are so grateful for his service over the years, please join us in thanking him for all his hard work and commitment, and wishing him luck in his future endeavors!
By Md Hamja
Spencer Walz has been working hard to help others as part of the NAMI Washtenaw community for the past eight years.
Most of the group leaders at NAMI live with a mental health condition, this is also the case for Spencer; he has lived with anxiety from an early age. Spencer’s parents were able to identify the symptoms of his anxiety due to their own experience with their mental health. However, it was not until fifth or sixth grade that anxiety had started significantly affecting Spencer’s life and everyday activities. Around that time he was officially diagnosed with anxiety and started having frequent panic attacks. His anxiety centered around school and an extreme fear of vomiting. These challenges led to him withdrawing from school. Ultimately, he found a great psychiatrist who supported him in returning to his schooling. He still felt anxious a lot of the time, but learned coping mechanisms and leaned on friends and community members who helped him get through his school years.
When Spencer graduated high school, he was admitted to the University of Michigan. During his sophomore year, the symptoms of his anxiety worsened to the point that he again needed to withdraw from his studies. During this break, he sought out further treatment and started working in construction and building houses, activities he loves to engage in.
It was during this break from his studies that his mother, a social worker, introduced him to NAMI Washtenaw. He was introduced to Bob Nassauer, a long-time volunteer. Nassauer took Spencer under his wing and encouraged him to keep volunteering. NAMI Washtenaw provided Spencer a space where he felt safe and could engage authentically with others. Due to Nassauer’s support and Spencer’s sense of belonging at NAMI Washtenaw, Spencer has remained a volunteer and has continued to give back to our community for the past eight years.
During these eight years of service, focused on three main commitments: leading a young-adult support group, teaching peer-to-peer psychoeducation courses, and giving presentations at local schools and organizations. Spencer facilitates the young adult support group; he feels that he created a space where people who share similar journeys with mental health issues can safely talk about their struggles. At the end of each session, he encourages the group to set positive goals and practice gratitude. For his psychoeducation course, he recruits participants and teaches them about their conditions and treatment options. This course also teaches participants to look for signs of relapses, and to develop coping strategies and problem-solving skills. Spencer plans to teach another course in the Fall of 2022. Finally, Spencer visits local schools and organizations and gives presentations to people about his personal story. Along with his story, he also presents “Ending the Silence” talks. In these presentations, participants learn about the warning signs of mental health conditions and what steps to take if they or a loved one shows signs of worsening mental health.
Spencer went back to the University of Michigan and graduated with a major in public health. He has a full-time job at a start-up in Ann Arbor where he sells tech. In the future, he is planning to move into full time construction and home building, which has been his passion for many years. He enjoys working in places where he can work with his hands and build new things. Spencer knows that his anxiety will be with him throughout his life; it’s not just something he can get rid of. He knows that he needs to stay vigilant about his mental health and take care of himself.
Recently, Spencer announced that it was time for him to retire from young-adult group therapy as a leader. The young-adult group is mostly aimed at members aged 18 to 30 years old, and since Spencer celebrated his 30th birthday this month, he has decided it’s time to pass the leadership position to a younger person. In our interview, Spencer shared some advice for others living with mental health conditions:
Spencer helped change lives by being a NAMI volunteer. Lots of people come back to his support group year-after-year, with some members from his first support group still attending sessions. This shows just how much influence the support group has on people’s lives. NAMI Washtenaw has helped Spencer to live with his anxiety diagnosis, and in turn he has helped others live with their mental health challenges. The NAMI Washtenaw community truly appreciates Spencer Walz for all of his hard work being part of this organization for all of these years!
Md Hamja is a sophomore at the University of Michigan studying psychology. He plans to go to medical school to become a psychiatrist. He grew up in an environment where mental health was stigmatized and not talked about a lot. His goal is to get rid of some of the stigmas surrounding mental health in his community and help as many people as he can who are struggling with mental health issues.