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NAMI Wood River Valley: Busting Myths, Inequities In Quest For Mental Health

NAMI Wood River Valley

How are our law enforcement — nationally and locally — handling high-risk calls with individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis? And what if that person was Hispanic/Latinx?

The Wood River Valley office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, better known as NAMI, is teaming up with law enforcement and first responders to fortify the invaluable role of a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) through trainings and public outreach.

NAMI-WRV Executive Director Christina Cernansky and Diversity/Outreach Director Herbert Romero visit with Morning Edition George Prentice to talk about efforts to support the most vulnerable population in our community. 

“Every day I wake up and I thank the universe that I'm here and how can I help others join me in this journey to wellness.”

Read the full transcipt below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice.

There has been extraordinary, and many say long overdue, scrutiny of law enforcement of light across the US and here in Idaho. This morning, we're going to address some of that, in particular, how law enforcement handles high-risk calls with individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis, and what if that person was Hispanic or Latinx?

Christina Cernansky is here. She's the Executive Director of the Wood River Valley office of NAMI. That is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Herbert Romero is also here. He's Director of Diversity and Outreach at the NAMI office in the Wood River Valley. They join us live via Zoom this morning. Good morning to you both.

HERBERT ROMERO: Good morning.


PRENTICE: Christina, here's a question, not just for this year, but for this era. How do we normalize our conversation around mental health?

CERNANSKY: Getting help for mental health challenges has always been a stigma. When I first started working at NAMI, I thought that mental illness was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the DVD cover with Jack Nicholson. That's what I thought mental illness was. But little did I know that one in five adults and one in four children will be faced with a mental health challenge. And I, in fact, also am dual diagnosis. And so I am the face of a mental illness. A lot of us will be faced with it. Whether you like it or not, whether you want to admit it or not, you will be touched by these challenges.

When we talk about mental health and wellbeing, what we focus on as NAMI is working on early intervention, early intervention with these diagnoses, and then the best care possible to get treatments, the best treatments to recovery, and then helping the system with judicial diversion. For far too long, we've relied on police and law enforcement to be almost mental health therapists on the front lines. That's what NAMI is here to talk about with the community at large.

We've been a part of a training called CIT, Crisis Intervention Team training. I think it's about 33 years old. This came out of Memphis, Tennessee when there was a large increase of cases where law enforcement were using force rather than with empathy. This training is an intensive 40-hour training, Monday through Friday, where police officers learn empathy, and to know what it's like to have a mental health challenge. For part of the training with earbuds, you're listening to voices. For a couple of hours, you're trying to take part in this training, but also know what it's like to have voices in your head. So, you kind of get a firsthand experience of what it's like to have schizophrenia. Police officers, they have- I think it's over 80 hours of training, learning how to use a gun for [inaudible 00:03:19], and about eight hours of empathy, dealing with suicidal ideations and mental health challenges.

That's what NAMI and the CIT training program seeks to help with, is to train officers to be able to know what it's like to have a challenge. The presentations that we bring forth is... I myself, I present on my mental health challenges and what it's like, as well as we bring a family representative in. So, police officers know that on the other side of that call most likely is a family member, a loved one that needs help with that particular call that they're calling in for.

PRENTICE: Again, CIT is Crisis Intervention Team protocols. Yes?

CERNANSKY: Correct. Crisis Intervention Team, that's CIT, and then the training itself. Yes, it's 40 hours.

PRENTICE: Herbert, talk to me about the challenge of reaching out to the Hispanic or Latinx community in talking about mental health.

ROMERO: Well, the stigma is twice the situation. One is making sure that we have advocates in the Hispanic community that would champion on addressing the stigma. The other thing of course, translating [inaudible 00:04:42] the information as user friendly as possible. In the Hispanic community also, there's a major stigma about mental health, like Christina was saying about the Cuckoo's nest is [inaudible 00:00:04:56], or that person is crazy. For many years to this day, that's still happening. So, Hispanic advocates, Hispanic leaders represent us, they understand and comprehend the importance of this topic being out there, putting a face to this important topic, and the dredging still is very key. Then of course, I reached out not just to the family, but to other leaders that will also advocate on the importance of learning and being aware, what it is, and how to address it, and that they're not alone, and that there is support there, of course.

Myself, being very fortunate that I was given this opportunity, that's what we're doing already. We're gathering other Hispanic members. We have a weekly support group. It's not growing in numbers, but it's going [inaudible 00:05:52], meaning we're establishing the foundation, and in foundation we always talk about on a weekly basis how are we going to outreach and how are we going to get the word out. Women and men, husbands and wives are very committed on making sure [inaudible 00:06:10] also making sure they understand that it's okay if you're going [inaudible 00:06:15] stress, or if you're being diagnosed as a bipolar, et cetera. And knowing that there is resources locally.

PRENTICE: Christina, tell me if this is none of my business, it's my understanding that you lost your best friend to suicide.


PRENTICE: Can I assume that you carry her memory, but it also informs what you do.


CERNANSKY: Thank you for asking about my dear friend, Marie. Part of my presentation when I talk to these officers is I ask them to draw a square on their piece of paper. And then I asked them to draw a smaller square. My father is a Marine, he's a Marine aviator. So, I was raised with a rough and tough [inaudible 00:07:04] the torpedo is full speed ahead. Never be the caboose, always the engine. Never ask for help, always be the helper. And Marines don't cry. So, I grew up with this sense of I have to be strong. And it's kept Polish Catholic too, but that on top of their. And so when my best friend died of suicide, I did not know how to cope. I didn't know how to ask for help. I didn't know that I was going through a big depressive state. I didn't know that I was in that dark place until I realized I was waking up every morning, wanting to die myself.

The guilt and the shame that I carried, and I felt that I didn't know about her sorrow, I didn't know about her two prior attempts, I carried that with me, and why couldn't I have helped her? And so therefore, when I found myself in that square, I didn't know how to get out. Then when I was suicidal myself, in the inner square, I really didn't know how to get out. And I share this with the officers, and I ask rhetorically, "Have you known anyone that has been there as well? Or maybe even yourself?" It wasn't until I met my "NAMI mama", the woman that helped to get me out of my dark space, that it takes a really strong person to reach out. It takes a really strong person to say, "I need help, and I can't do this alone."

It was not my vernacular. I didn't know how to do those things, because I was always going into the burning building and making sure everyone was okay. When we talk about mental health challenges, we have to drop the stigma machine that's associated with getting help, that we have to be tough and we can pick ourselves up from our bootstraps, because this impacts our brain. And so, when I was depressed, my brain was not producing dopamine and serotonin, and those are happy things. And so, now in recovery, and I'm now four and a half years in recovery, I've realized that my brain doesn't do that.

So, I have a checklist of things that I do every day so I don't slip back into depression. So, how do I get my dopamine and serotonin bumps every day? I make sure I go out for a walk. I make sure that I laugh. I check in with family members. I make sure I get some sunshine. When I have a lot of phone calls at work, or Zoom calls, I make sure I go outside and I walk around in the grass barefoot.

So, it's little things that I do to help me and my brain rewire itself. And my brain is not unique. This depression and anxiety and substance abuse disorder is very, very, very common. When you layer all of those different things on top of each other, they can be deadly. And so, the more that we are outspoken about our own journey to wellness and help others understand that it's not scary to be able to cross that threshold, and not only that, NAMI is here to say that you're not alone and that we are here to walk with you down that path.

That's why I have, yes, given my life to this organization, because NAMI saved my life, and I'm able to honor my friend, because it was one day that I realized that my friend wouldn't want me to be in that dark space as she was. She would want me to be a shed, loving light to the rest of the world so I can help others. One major pivotal point in my journey to wellness was I met a gentleman by the name of Kevin Hines, and he survived a Golden Gate Bridge jump. I met him with my, then, intern, who also has a similar journey to myself, similar story. We told him our stories and he took our hands, and he said, "I'm glad that you're here. Please join me and in ripple effect and making change." And so, that's what I do, is every day I wake up and I think the universe that I'm here and how can I help others join me in this journey to wellness.

PRENTICE: Wow. Well, I've got just a few seconds left here. So, let's talk very quickly about a unique opportunity later today to talk about the Hispanic Latinx US taskforce, NAMI Wood River Valley, you're going to bring in local law enforcement, talk about the crisis hotline, we'll learn more about CIT, and that is at midday today. And you're going to show us some of a film, which I have actually been lucky enough to see called Ernie and Joe. And Ernie and Joe are pair of police officers in San Antonio who are on the front line, that's what they do for a living, that said their journey and sharing their journey is hopefully changing a lot of lives.

CERNANSKY: Well, the CIT program is just amazing, and I was very privileged to actually go through the training myself when I first started at NAMI. This goes through the daily life of a mental health taskforce, CIT train officers in San Antonio. Across the state of Idaho, we have a lot of CIT teams, and it is our hopes to be able to show this documentary more so around the state with NAMI affiliates. There are six NAMI affiliates across the state, they're just one of them. It shows law enforcement having empathy and literally talking a woman off of a bridge. Then you get to see them following up with her and how well she's doing, and then being able to say, "You don't have to do this. There are options. We can walk you through that." So, again, it's going out to our community members, whether it's law enforcement or with NAMI or as volunteers with empathy, because whether you like it or not, whether you admitted it or not, we will be faced with mental health challenges within our ourselves, our family members, or our close circle of friends.

So, it's de-stigmatizing the conversation, and this is a movement that is sweeping across the nation on how we can promote more empathetic practices within law enforcement. I'm here to say that the CIT is very successful, and we applaud police officers for stepping up and taking the training and joining NAMI in these efforts.

PRENTICE: So, the good news is that the public can link up via Zoom, but also come to Hop Porter Park in Hayley. Because of current conditions, that physical event will be capped at 20 people, but there are all kinds of opportunities to participate in this. People can learn more about this at the NAMI Wood River Valley website. That's namiwrv.org. She is Christina Cernansky. He is Herbert Romero.

CERNANSKY: Thank you, George.

ROMERO: Thank you very much.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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