By Kat Halfman
BROWN COUNTY – Grappling with mental health struggles of her own, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Brown County co-vice president Barb Gerarden said she considers herself blessed to be here today as a suicide survivor.
Gerarden said she hopes her work with NAMI can help eliminate the stigma around mental illness.
“I think we continue to make strides and the younger generations are talking more openly about it,” she said. “There are still a lot of false beliefs and more work to be done. We really need to normalize it and treat it like any other illness. COVID-19 definitely exacerbates issues of loneliness, depression and anxiety. We have been trying to send the message of hope to our community.”
Gerarden has been involved with NAMI for more than 17 years, serving as co-vice president for 16 of them.
A retired Green Bay Police Department behavioral health officer, Gerarden served as the department’s Community Crisis Intervention Team (CCIT) coordinator.
She said she remains the NAMI CCIT liaison, continuing the work with local law enforcement to provide training in crisis response.
First drawn to the organization after watching loved ones struggle with mental health, Gerarden said NAMI helped further their knowledge and understanding on how to move forward.
“You can’t know what you don’t know,” she said, quoting author Jonathan Raymond. “You can’t know about things you have yet to discover.”
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Gerarden said what started as a small group of families gathered around a kitchen table in Madison in 1979, has blossomed into one of the nation’s leading voices on mental health, with hundreds of affiliates nationwide.
NAMI Brown County’s mission is to educate, support and advocate for people living with mental illness, as well as offering hope and promoting wellness.
Gerarden said one of the biggest struggles NAMI faces is reaching people in need – noting the difficulty of knowing what the best platform is to reach people who may benefit from their services.
NAMI offers a wide variety of programs to help people struggling with mental illness and their families – including peer support groups, family and friends support groups, In Your Own Voice presentations, outreach programs for everyone from elementary schoolers to seniors, as well as supporting local law enforcement through CCIT and CIP (Crisis Intervention Partners) for social workers and other professionals working the front lines.
“I’ve personally worked the longest and closest with law enforcement training called CIT and CIP training, which have always had good feedback and appreciation from our local communities,” Gerarden said.
NAMI Brown County’s volunteer board of directors meet monthly to provide strategic guidance in the fulfillment of NAMI’s three-point mission of advocacy, education and support.
Together, with input from members and volunteers, the board makes policies to govern NAMI Brown County, set the budget, priorities and develop strategic plans to guide organizational development.
Each September, during National Suicide Prevention Month, Gerarden said NAMI Brown County holds NAMIWalks to help raise awareness of mental illness and raise funds to further its mission.
She said each NAMIWalks event brings together people of all ages and fitness levels for a 5K event.
Each year, Gerarden said NAMI Brown County sponsors a free annual picnic at Bay Beach Amusement Park filled with brats, hamburgers, hot dogs, homemade desserts, bingo, prizes and free ride tickets.
Gerarden said each May, during Mental Health Awareness Month, NAMI Brown County holds its annual gala, which includes an awards presentation for volunteer and peer of the year, a silent auction and keynote speaker.
Proceeds from the event fund NAMI’s educational programs.
Gerarden said, for her, one of the most rewarding parts of the job is hearing how important NAMI is to an individual’s recovery and wellness, especially as they support their loved ones.
More information on NAMI Brown County can be found online at namibrowncounty.org/about-us/membership/