She shares her story to help those struggling with mental illness — and their families

Andrea Chase is president of NAMI-Wake County, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Andrea Chase is president of NAMI-Wake County, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

When Andrea Chase’s husband was diagnosed with a mental illness in 2011, she attended classes and support groups at NAMI-Wake County, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Today, in addition to working a full-time job, Chase, 52, is the president of the organization as it hires its first executive director.

Q: You joined the NAMI-Wake County board in 2014 and became president in 2016. What about the organization impressed you enough to get involved?

A: It was the first place I heard anyone speak about recovery from mental illness. None of the doctors or mental health professionals I had been working with even talked about the possibility of recovery. Instead, we were really criminalized for having a mental health condition — the way we were treated. There was a lot of stigma that we experienced, and it was the way other people responded to us that made access and treatment so difficult.

Q: What did the classes teach you?

A: When I learned about the biology of the brain in the family-to-family class, I learned about stigma; I learned about the history of how we have prioritized treatment for mental health. All of that was the missing link for me to know what I needed to do to advocate for my relative and myself while trying to access care.

Q: Nearly 1 in 5 people in the United States experience mental illness. What happens when people don’t have access to care?

A: For my family, what it means is that my husband goes in and out of homelessness. It means he’s not willing to go to an inpatient facility because the way he was treated initially was so traumatizing for all of us.

If we can’t make it easier for people, if we don’t stop shackling people and forcing families to call the police, we’re not going to move in the right direction. It’s a choice that we have to make as a community to prioritize and support mental health professionals, making sure they’re being paid living wages so we get quality care.

Q: How is the state doing providing access and resources for mental health care?

A: I think for our state we’re going backwards; we’re not being smart about how we dedicate our limited resources. We know that our state’s elected officials have chosen not to expand Medicare and Medicaid in our state, leaving out a group of people, a group of our neighbors, who could benefit from additional access to care.

Q: How is the Wake County chapter furthering the vision of serving more people?

A: Most NAMI affiliates in our state are volunteers, and NAMI-Wake has been volunteer-run until this year. Our board prioritized hiring staff, so we have hired an executive director for our organization. We feel we want resources spending more time each week than (volunteers) can accomplish.

We want to continue to expand the free support groups and classes we offer here in Wake County because we feel educating individuals to live with mental health conditions and their family members is one of the best ways we can prioritize mental health care here in Wake County — to advocate for the care our families need.

Q: What’s surprised you the most about working with NAMI-Wake?

A: I guess what’s surprised me is how little progress I’ve been able to make myself. The reason I decided to volunteer was that I didn’t want other families to go through what we had been through. It’s been frustrating and discouraging — a steep learning curve that I had to take on just to learn about the illness, treatment available in our state and how the system works …

(I) take out time to serve on committees and go to meetings and share my story, which can often be difficult and traumatizing … and still feel like no matter how many times we share our story, it’s difficult to make this a priority for our state.

I am imperfect; I make mistakes every day no matter how much I’ve learned or what my role is with NAMI. I’m just constantly trying to read and learn more and make sure I’m putting my time where I can make the biggest impact.

Q: What is the biggest obstacle to making the progress you’d like to make?

A: Before my husband was diagnosed, I didn’t understand anything about bipolar disorder or severe mental illnesses, and so I know when we’re trying to talk about public policy, the burden is placed on those of us who have this specific experience. I think that’s the biggest hurdle for us to overcome.

Too many families are breaking up because of the diagnosis, and it’s not necessary when we have treatment available. We don’t have to put families through what we’re putting them through.

Know someone who would make a good Tar Heel of the Week? Send nominations to tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Andrea Chase

Born: Sept. 5, 1966; Germany

Resident: Raleigh

Occupation: Software company

Fun Fact: Grew up in a military family

Organization: NAMI-Wake County; NAMI-WAKE.org

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