“Individuals going through periods of mental illness – those who make it,” SC&I alumna Maggie Luo ‘04, said, “have lived through it and been stigmatized. So we try to create a free platform to enable them to share their concerns and challenges about their illnesses. In addition to the individuals who suffer, their families are tired both from helping their loved ones and from coping with the stigma. They are really in need of respite and support.”
Luo, Associate Director of Communications and Technology for the New Jersey Chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI NJ), a membership organization focusing on advocacy, education and support, described NAMI NJ’s mission to the undergraduate students in Associate Professor Itzhak Yanovitzky’s Persuasion class.
Luo, who graduated from the Rutgers School of Communication and Information (SC&I) in 2004 with a Master of Communication and Media, visited the class on October 1 with her colleague, Aruna Rao, NAMI NJ’s Associate Director of Education and Communications.
They were there to kick off a collaboration between the students and NAMI NJ. For the next few weeks, NAMI NJ will be the student’s “client,” and the students will break into teams as marketing and public relations “agencies,” each tasked with developing a comprehensive marketing and public relations campaign for NAMI NJ, designed to increase awareness and membership. The class has a second “client,” the New Jersey State Cancer Registry, which is looking to develop a communication strategy that will increase participation of cancer patients in research that advances effective treatments for various types of cancer.
The “clients” will visit the class again later in the semester, when the students will present their work and recommendations. They will provide feedback to students and will choose the winning plan to implement. The winning student team will be recognized and honored at an award ceremony in December, just before the semester ends.
Professor Yanovitzky had collaborated with NAMI NJ in the past on similar projects and they are currently collaborating on a project that will promote the adoption of evidence-informed policies regarding screening for adolescent depression in New Jersey public schools.
Yanovitzky said, “University-community research partnerships of this type have been shown to be an effective mechanism for translating research into policy and practice, but they can also be an instrument of effective pedagogy. They provide structured opportunities for students to apply the knowledge and problem-solving tools they acquire in class to real-world challenges while at the same time learning first-hand from the experience of seasoned professionals. Practitioners on their end benefit from the fresh perspective that students provide and the innovative solutions they conceive. This is a win-win proposition for all involved.”
Providing the students with the background information they need to begin the process of researching and developing tactics and strategies, Luo and Rao explained to the students how NAMI NJ works with individuals coping with mental illness and their families.
“NAMI NJ is a grassroots organization originally founded 30 years ago by a group of families with children with severe mental illness, to help their children who were suffering, as well as themselves as the primary caregivers,” Rao said. “NAMI NJ’s programs are not illness specific. We are not a service provider and we do not provide treatment. Rather, we help people cope with their mental illness and help them to navigate the mental health care system.”
Luo described to students some of the vital work NAMI NJ does:
- Train members to go out into their communities to develop more support groups for people suffering from mental illness and their families.
- Work with organizations to do advocacy work. This involves legislative work and collaborating with public policy teams to change laws and regulations to benefit patients and their families.
- Train family members to help other family members become better advocates.
- Sponsor an annual poetry contest to showcase poetry with mental health themes, including poems some patients write to describe how they feel while staying in a mental hospital.
- Work with and train the police – NAMI is the often first line of defense for people suffering from mental illness.
- NAMI partners with National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to disseminate and promote evidence-based practices. In 2015 NAMI NJ was recognized by the American Psychiatric Association for their work making mental illness treatments better known.
Luo and Rao explained that NAMI NJ used to have more than 2500 members, but today it has 1500. Not only is membership lower than it has been historically, they said, but it is still dropping off. The reason for this, they explained, is the generation of people who built NAMI NJ and sustained it are retiring, ill or deceased, and NAMI NJ has not been able to bring in a similarly committed group to support it.
“We need younger volunteers to sustain our grassroots efforts. NAMI NJ has been reaching out to doctors and hospitals, to make them aware of the support we provide, and they say ‘NAMI is the best kept secret.’ We need to get the word out,” Rao said.
NAMI NJ runs the NAMI Walk, which is an annual campaign designed to spread the news about NAMI NJ, and help to decrease stigma associated with mental illness. NAMI NJ does not advertise because, Luo and Rao explained, NAMI does not have the funds to do so.
The assignment for the class, they explained, is to design a strategic communication plan addressing these questions:
- How may NAMI NJ attract the demographic of people 18-24 years old, the generation who can build NAMI back up and sustain it as a diverse organization?
- What do younger people need to know to be encouraged and motivated to get involved with NAMI NJ?
- What can NAMI NJ do to bring this age group in as volunteers and help them stay committed?
- How can NAMI NJ increase diversity among our members?
Both Luo and Rao have worked with NAMI NJ for a combined 33 years, Rao for 18 and Luo for 15. Luo was a master’s student at SC&I when she met Rao at a conference, and Rao suggested to Luo that she should volunteer for NAMI NJ. Luo did, beginning as an intern working to reach out to Chinese Americans and explain the services NAMI NJ provides.
“A few months later, Luo said, “I realized a family member was suffering from mental illness. Ultimately, I became the biggest beneficiary of my association with NAMI NJ. It’s wonderful work to support a healthcare organization, it’s very rewarding. It’s a job, but you can make it a part of your life as you grow with it.”
“When people suffer from physical problems they often receive sympathy and empathy, but someone suffering from bi-polar disorder or other mental illnesses can find it extremely difficult to go to class or work knowing that some people will judge them and make comments,” Rao told the students. “Mental illness comes with its own baggage. People need to be educated to reduce the stigma toward people suffering from mental illness. By 2040 depression will be one of the most widespread illnesses and it creates chaos in people’s lives and communities. We want you to take this opportunity to delve into the lives of people grappling with horrible illnesses.”
Please check back, as this story will continue to grow as we add more information about the campaigns the students design, the winning team, and the award ceremony.
Photo: From left to right: Aruna Rao, Itzhak Yanovitzky, Maggie Luo '04.