By Brendan Church
Susan Todoroff has played an instrumental role in shaping conversations around mental health and has helped contribute to meaningful change during her time as a volunteer with NAMI Washtenaw County. Motivated by an immense desire to support other parents whose children are experiencing challenges with mental health, Susan Todoroff’s presence has been critical and uplifting to those enduring these difficult moments.
Long before her time as a NAMI volunteer, Susan has been a leader and an involved community member. During her 26 years as an Ann Arbor resident, she made her mark as a successful small business owner. She started and owned the local restaurant Juicy Kitchen which prides itself on local, fresh, and high-quality ingredients. The restaurant partners with many local farmers and bakeries to ensure delicious and sustainable meals for their customers. After recently selling her business, she now lives part time in Florida. Susan continues to give her time and energy to her family and spends numerous hours as a NAMI volunteer.
Susan’s experience with mental health began when she observed the struggles of her daughter. Unable to initially recognize or comprehend the symptoms expressed by her daughter, both Susan and her daughter became increasingly frustrated and discontent at the inability to resolve the difficulties she faced. Susan wanted the very best for her daughter, but neither of them were able to identify the cause of her emotional and turbulent behavior. This lack of understanding created a significant strain on their relationship which Susan felt hopeless in resolving.
The familial conflicts and the increasing sense of isolation from her daughter caused Susan to question her capability as a mother as she felt an increasing sense of doubt and inadequacy. This sentiment all changed when her daughter was able to be diagnosed with a specific mental health condition. This realization made everything easier for Susan and her family. Not only was her daughter able to receive the support she needed but Susan held a much greater understanding of the challenges her daughter was experiencing. Susan spoke about the diagnosis saying, “Life just made more sense.”
After discovering the NAMI Parents Together Support Group in 2017, Susan found the support and answers she had been so desperately searching for. Not only was her experience not unique but the feelings of shame and failure no longer felt justified. She remarked that the most difficult step was finding a support group; but after finding NAMI, the meetings lead to her being more understanding and less stressed. Finding other mothers who were enduring the same struggles as herself gave Susan the encouragement to continue persevering and to believe in a brighter future.
Susan’s positive and transformative experience with NAMI compelled her to sign up as a volunteer and begin to contribute to improving the conversations around mental health. After regularly attending the parent support group for over a year she befriended Alison Paine, the founder of the group, and gradually became more involved in co-leading the meetings. She cited the overall friendliness of those in the organization and the ease of participating as primary reasons for joining.
Over the last four years at NAMI Washtenaw County, Susan has held a variety of impactful roles. In 2019 she began working and presenting on the Ending the Silence campaign which aims at helping middle and high school-aged youth learn about the warning signs of mental health conditions and where to access support. These efforts have helped shift the narrative around mental health by providing younger generations with a broad scope of knowledge and tools necessary to address these challenges.
Susan has also been a facilitator for NAMI’s Family to Family class since 2020, which is an inclusive program aimed at assisting those with loved ones living with a mental health condition. Utilizing her own experience as a mother, Susan’s perspective and insight have helped many others cope with similar challenges. She has been a valuable voice and means of support for many parents. Additionally, Susan has volunteered for NAMI’s hospital visits where she has provided mental health patients and families with information to access resources to assist them. She took the position of hospital visitation coordinator in 2021. Her understanding and reassuring presence have helped provide many families with a sense of hope during some of their darkest hours.
Susan plans to continue her work as a volunteer and hopes that she can continue to make a difference in supporting those affected by mental health. When asked about what she desires for the future she mentioned the creation of a teen support group as she believes that this demographic has a unique set of challenges that are best addressed as a separate collective. She mentioned how she feels that teenagers often bear a significant brunt of the issues associated with mental illness and that better support systems need to be established. Long-term she hopes that organizations like NAMI can continue to change the culture and attitude surrounding mental health. Susan desires a future where mental illness is completely destigmatized and holds the same weight as any physical condition.