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Jessica Gruneich

Jessica Gruneich is the executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Like many others who work for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the state chapter’s executive director, Jessica Gruneich, knows personally the importance of mental health resources.

Gruneich, originally from the St. Louis area, and her family received help from a local affiliate of NAMI for her brother, who lives with a mental health condition. Her father, who died by suicide in 2013, lived with an untreated mental health condition and battled depression in the ’90s.

“I’m very pleased to be doing this position in our state in Wisconsin because there’s thousands of families who have a similar story to mine,” Gruneich said. “That’s the powerful thing, I think, about NAMI is that most people who work for NAMI, volunteer for NAMI, serve on the nonprofit board, in some way have been personally affected.”

Before coming to Wisconsin, Gruneich took over a local affiliate in Illinois, NAMI Madison County. Under her watch, the branch grew to serve 12 counties, making mental health services more accessible for Illinois residents. 

Her father’s experience with mental illness and his death influenced Gruneich to make sure other families have the resources they need.

“I’m going to try to pick up the flag for NAMI in terms of something that was very horrible and tragic for our family into something positive, so other families don’t have to go through something similar,” Gruneich said.

The mission of NAMI Wisconsin is to improve the quality of life of people living with mental illness and to promote recovery. At the state level, NAMI assists the 29 local Wisconsin chapters, including Dane County. 

The state chapter has a full time CIT director, who oversees crisis intervention training for local law enforcement, and a policy director, who keeps up-to-date on legislation related to mental health.

“We provide the support to the affiliates, who provide the support to the people who are affected by mental illness,” Gruneich said.

How did you get involved with NAMI?

When I got back from law school in Michigan, my brother actually was discharged from the Navy. He has a mental health condition, and he wasn’t able to continue with his (submarine) service. He was going to be a submariner out in Connecticut. He wasn’t able to do that with his lived experience with mental health.

Beyond my younger brother being affected, my father had a mental health condition ... but wasn’t treated, so he would take medication for depression but it would never fully deal with some of the other manic symptoms he was experiencing. At that time in the mid-'90s, unfortunately, NAMI wasn’t available to our family.

When you have a parent or any family member that has a mental illness, a lot of times people don’t know how to cope with it. You don’t look sick when you have a mental health condition. There’s no cast or it doesn't look like you’re going through chemo because it’s all happening upstairs in your supercomputer — that’s your brain. From the outside world it looks like you’re intentionally doing something. I’m not sitting here with you saying that they don’t have to be accountable because clearly they do. It’s not a blank slate. It’s just, let’s consider that it might be a medical-, biological-based illness.

How has advocacy for mental illness changed over time?

I think we all can take pause and take a little bit of time to read about the different diagnoses and how you talk about mental illness is so key because words are the most powerful thing in our culture.

Literally the words we choose to put on mental illness is huge. You don't say, "I am a toothache." You say, "I have a toothache" … Your illness doesn’t define you. School districts are taking a stand because they’re talking about it. Everyone is an advocate for mental health.

I do this because I think of the little 5-year-old who is healthy and happy and just like my brother, he’s going to hit puberty and something is going to go off in their chemicals in their brain and what is going to be our societal response to that? They should have access to effective, collaborative care and not have to feel that they caused their illness, that they’re somehow responsible for it, that they don't have education or morality.

It’s dehumanizing sometimes for people with mental health, and it certainly was for people 100 years ago. They literally just disappeared from their families, institutionalized, just were gone. The history of overcoming all of that obviously has been a long road.

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What is the history of NAMI?

One of the reasons why I’m honored to have this job is that the national organization, the founders of NAMI, are from the Madison area. We have some wonderful women who ... were fighting for their children in terms of parity for services for medical care.

The history of NAMI is very strong and what a legacy in this state. NAMI is always trying to put a much more ... realistic story for someone to access service sand go through a system of care.

In the United States, mental health and treatment and diagnosis and access to a psychiatrist — that is a systems problem. We need more psychiatrists. There is a national shortage, and there is an even greater shortage of child psychiatrists. Access, wait times and services is just something at the national level — working with national leaders to make sure NAMI has a place at the table, to make sure funding and research development on the brain is going to continue.

What do you hope people know about NAMI?

One of the things we always say is that NAMI provides help and hope for those who need it most. If you feel like you might be struggling with a diagnosis or a loved family member is, please don’t stay silent. Speak up.

NAMI is a bridge. We’re not direct service, we're not counselors and physicians, but we provide education, support and advocacy, so people can go find out what services are available. They can learn self-advocacy tools, how to talk to your doctor about treatment.

Now that I am the state director, one of my initiatives is going to make sure we have an active and engaged relationship with direct service providers. We want providers to know what NAMI is and know what the programs are and to help us get to people who might not know that we’re were.

We don't want to be a best kept secret. We want NAMI To be known in the community and for providers to view us as a partner in providing that wraparound, collaborative care.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.