Not your typical board member

Cecilia Brennan puts NAMI M.V. on the map.

Cecilia Brennan, a NAMI board member, helps Island families and individuals navigate mental illness. — Lexi Pline

NAMI is an acronym you likely recognize. It stands for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and it’s the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, with local chapters throughout the country. Its presence on Martha’s Vineyard may be recognized through the annual Darkness into Vineyard Light suicide awareness walk, the 12-week Family to Family education and support group, or the lengthy lineup of activites offered during Mental Health Awareness month in May. 

But NAMI’s presence on the Island wasn’t as widely known until about three years ago, when Cecelia Brennan joined the board.

“There wasn’t a huge presence of NAMI on Martha’s Vineyard,” Brennan told The Times. “The whole purpose of me joining was to try and expand NAMI, and make their offerings more visible to the community.”

It was a matter of getting the name out, and Brennan started by attending NAMI Cape Cod board meetings, where she got a feel for how other chapters utilized various programs. 

“I became the liaison between NAMI Martha’s Vineyard and the larger NAMI network,” Brennan said. 

Three years later, NAMI became a household name. Through fundraising and grants from NAMI Cape Cod, the Island chapter was able to hire part-time employee Lisa Belcastro.

“I’m so grateful for Lisa,” Brennan said of Belcastro. “Now we have a paid employee, and we can get a lot more done.”

NAMI added another support group, and now offers two per month. They also trained two new facilitators to help lead support groups. And NAMI recently partnered with first responders and police chiefs for mental health first aid training. 

“They’re responding to the call first. Now they can be better equipped to handle mental health issues,” Brennan said. 

This year, 45 local police officers and first responders were trained in mental health first aid, according to Brennan. “Now they know we exist, and they know to give people our cards,” Brennan said. 

NAMI also partnered with the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and four nurses also received NAMI’s first aid training. “If there’s a mental health crisis, that person will likely end up in the ER,” Brennan said. “It’s important for us to get nurses trained on how to handle and diffuse situations.” 

NAMI is also working its way into Island schools. “We’re working with a student who wants to implement a peer support group,” Brennan said. “Which is wonderful. There’s a lot of opportunity in school to reduce stigma and open the conversation around mental health.”

Additional NAMI partnerships include M.V. Community Services, the Island Wide Youth Collaborative, the Island Disability Coalition, and the Substance Use Task Force.

“Now we’re a thought,” Brennan said. “People know they can call Lisa and [me].”

Brennan’s work is entirely volunteer. She has a full-time job in human resources, and got involved with NAMI after experiencing its support for herself. 

“I moved here with my husband three years ago, and at the time, we had a family member dealing with mental health issues, so I started going to these support groups,” Brennan said. She attended the free 12-week Family to Family class, which is part education and part support group. 

“The class was a complete eye-opener for me,” Brennan said. “Learning the details of various mental illnesses, learning about the pharmaceuticals, medication, and referral process. But most valuable was listening to other people’s stories, and knowing you’re not alone in what you’re going through.”

At the end of the 12 weeks, an educator asked Brennan if she was interested in getting involved. “I knew I wanted to become more involved in the Island in some way, and this seemed like a good fit,” Brennan said. “It’s not easy when you have a family member dealing with mental health issues.”

Brennan believes communication is key in combating mental illness, as well as the stigma around it. “The more we hide behind it, the more it perpetuates the problem,” Brennan said. “One in four people have mental health issues. If you’re struggling, you’re not alone.”

She said the most challenging part about her role as a board member is navigating the mental health space, agencies, and programs. “There’s a lot of services out there,” Brennan said. “It’s about getting it all into a logical, one-stop shop, so people know where they can go. It’s about helping people through the red tape of treatment.”

And living on an Island presents bigger challenges. “We don’t have mental health beds or hospitals,” Brennan said. “If someone has a mental health crisis, they can be stuck in the ER because no boats are running, or there are no off-Island beds.”

The Island also lacks enough mental health professionals, therapists, and psychiatrists. “Those who are here are wonderful; we just need more,” Brennan said.
Brennan said the most rewarding aspect of her role is watching families and individuals open up in what they’re going through. “Just knowing you helped ease someone’s burden is huge,” Brennan said. 

When asked if she ever pictured herself as a mental health professional, she said she did. “I was a psychology major, and instead of going into therapy, I went into HR,” Brennan said. “I’m not surprised I’m on this path.”

Looking forward, Brennan is considering going back to school to get a master’s in mental health counseling. “That way I can help more people on the Island,” she said. “So that’s underway.”