My wife and I live in Atlantic County, NJ. We met as kids and have been married for 36 years. Both of us are native Philadelphian’s and resided most of our parenting years in Bucks County, PA. We have two adult sons and enjoy being grandparents of two healthy little boys. Neither she or I can identify any family history of mental illness, however our youngest son suffers with a severe mental illness and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2010.
Both of us have been active with NAMI Atlantic County for over five years. My wife currently serves on their “Board of Trustees” and is the “Community Outreach” contact person for Atlantic County. This past January, I began serving on a committee under the New Jersey Supreme Court for the implementation of sweeping changes to end the unfair incarceration of “non-violent mentally ill offenders”. In 2014, my wife was appointed to Atlantic County’s “Mental Health Advisory Board” and since 2010, together we both teach NAMI’s signature course, “Family to Family”, to people who have loved ones who suffer with mental illness. In 2013, we were trained to teach NAMI’s “Smarts for Advocacy”, a course on how to communicate effectively with legislative and elected officials from a grassroots level. Recently, together we have advocated in Washington, DC for “Child and Adolescent Psychiatry” of which there is a huge void.
Our son grew up in a sound family structure, he attended religious and private school. Sometime in his mid-teen years, our son became lazy and lost his drive. We became concerned and sought help, but there was no diagnosis for being lazy or withdrawn. We tried to direct and motivate him, but he was self-medicating. His therapist recommended intervention and we agreed. At 16, we sent our son away to a drug treatment center. A couple years later, still undiagnosed we had a young man going nowhere. At 19, he was driving erratically and was arrested on the PA turnpike. He was charged with five misdemeanors of reckless endangerment for “passing on the shoulder of the road when passing lanes were blocked”. We agreed to let the system come up with an answer because we were resigned. At sentencing, he was given probation with a long tail and we all believed his behavior was drug related. So, we toughed loved him and kicked him out. He lived independently and found himself in trouble, county after county all around the Tri State area.
Still undiagnosed, our son violated his probation and was sent to a correctional facility in Carbon County, Pennsylvania but had other complicated matters in Philadelphia. Those matters, had him incarcerated in Philadelphia for seven months where he was finally diagnosed. The prison conditions had caused his first break, he was fully delusional, highly psychotic and very paranoid, the depths of which he might have never gotten to if not locked up. When released, my wife and I committed to support our son in any and all regards and he moved in with us and we got into gear.
We searched for help and found NAMI NJ. We also found that Philadelphia had a specific court for “non-violent mentally ill offenders”. Through advocacy, we were able to have the Philadelphia matter moved to their “Mental Health Court”. There we found a Judge and a DA whose matters were specific to mental illness. A court with compassion and true community interests and without incarceration. The same judge has seen our son each time he had to appear and has seen him move incrementally through recovery. Our current gains are in fact due to this empathetic court, its staff and its prosecutor, even the public defender’s understanding is different and supportive.
Currently, our son is in recovery and living independently in Atlantic County. Stakeholders that include “Jewish Family Services” and “Atlantic Care Behavioral Health” along with other affiliates have provided the safety net that is supporting our son’s recovery.
Finally, because of NAMI, I’m giving back, “to balance the weight and burden of supporting my loved one who suffers”. NAMI’s services are free and are made up of volunteers like my wife and me. NAMI settled our shock and fear, taught us empathy and trained us to advocate for our loved one. There is no societal healing without understanding, acceptance and education. There is no recovery without family or collaborative community support including an educated and compassionate justice system and NAMI.
Father of a son in Recovery
NAMI “Family to Family” teacher
NAMI “Smarts for advocacy” facilitator
NJ Courts, “Interbranch Advisory Committee on Mental Health Initiatives”