Lifting the veil

Island’s NAMI organization makes mental illness part of the conversation.


The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) planted a seed of hope on the Island nearly a dozen years ago when it offered the first of its Family to Family (F2F) classes. Today, NAMI reaches not only family and friends, but also Island police officers, first responders, high school students, and the broader community.

Like cancer so many years ago, mental illness is the unspoken topic at the dinner table, says Lisa Belcastro, coordinator for NAMI on the Island. “Mental illness is a health illness of the brain, and just as someone has cancer and it’s a health issue in their body, their blood, their bones, a mental illness is an illness where the brain is affected,” Belcastro says.

“When you’re faced with a loved one with a mental health issue, it’s very difficult to navigate the resources … you might be in a crisis situation … you need an organization to guide you,” says Cecilia Brennan, Martha’s Vineyard representative to NAMI Cape Cod and the Islands (NAMI CCI).

In 2009, NAMI brought its first F2F class to the Island. The class covers the chemistry of the brain, the different types of illnesses, medications, the possibility of recovery for everyone, and how to speak with health professionals. The class provides a sense of community where people might otherwise feel alone.

One example of a concrete achievement that F2F classes made possible for families is the creation of an emergency plan that can be implemented should a crisis arise for their family members. “Getting your numbers together and having medications written down somewhere … as much information as possible to prepare for that medical emergency, much as you would if someone had diabetes or cancer, or any other health issue,” says Belcastro.

During the class last spring, according to Belcastro, approximately a half-dozen folks out of 30 in the class faced a crisis.

“And they had their plan,” she said. “They knew who to call, and we went through how to talk to the ER docs, how to talk to Community Services.”

Brennan has taken the class twice. “It had a big impact on me from the support it gave me … the Family to Family class was life-changing for me and my husband.”

Brennan credits the early NAMI advocates — those who brought NAMI and the first F2F classes to the Island — with paving the way for today. She said she has learned from her work with the NAMI CCI board, and brings what she has learned back to the Island. With the support of NAMI CCI, she hired Belcastro a year and a half ago as “boots on the ground” to implement the vision of NAMI on-Island. Since then, the organization has bloomed into an array of community programs.


In the community

NAMI held two Mental Health First Aid (MFHA) courses for police and other first responders last fall. The eight-hour course trains participants on how to interact with a person in a mental health crisis.

The class takes stigma head-on. During one of the exercises, the instructors wrote “Mental Illness” and “Cancer” on a board in the class and asked for words associated with each topic.

For mental illness, folks used words like “crazy” and “lost,” and described unshowered, smelly people talking to themselves on the street. For cancer, though, folks used words like “survivor,” “brave,” “courageous,” “determined.”

Students were taught how to identify mental illness and de-escalate a situation. The instructor gave a real-life, off-Island example.

A person was acting out in front of a convenience store. Some members of the public were nervous, and called the police. The officers were trained in MHFA, and decided the person was not an immediate danger. They asked if the person would like to walk to the beach and talk there. Use of force was avoided, and the person was helped rather than arrested.

Island police, Belcastro said, have been largely involved with NAMI’s local efforts. Fifteen officers from Edgartown Police Department took the MHFA course, along with officers from other Island departments and the sheriff’s office. A West Tisbury sergeant is now certified to teach the course. EMTs, ER doctors, volunteers from the homeless shelters, and M.V. Community Services also attended the training.

NAMI offers two on-Island support groups on a drop-in basis for family and friends — the first Sunday of the month and the second Tuesday of the month. A facilitator checks in with everyone. The group offers its experiences, what may have worked or not worked, and provides a sense of community. The idea is to give folks tools to handle the challenges they face.


In Island schools

NAMI is also active at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. This past fall, a peer outreach group was started by a senior, in collaboration with NAMI. Participants learn how to help themselves or a friend, and meet twice a month during school hours. Anywhere from eight to 20 students have attended.

A subject is chosen for discussion each month — November tackled seasonal affective disorder, December focused on self-care, and January’s meeting covered anxiety and stress. Posters with the monthly theme are posted throughout the high school, and there is a bulletin board that highlights NAMI.

“It’s just super-exciting. It’s just great to be in the high school, for NAMI to have a presence — to be talking to the children, our future, these young adults — for them to be understanding that they are a part of curing stigma,” says Belcastro.

And she has more opportunities in the works. She plans to bring a program called Think Kids in October to the entire Island school system, including the preschools. All staff — every teacher, every administrative person — will be included. The eight-hour course, offered through Massachusetts General Hospital, will expand the skill set of staff to help students with mental health issues.

Think Kids offers more positive approaches to kids who are acting out in the classroom than the traditional “one more time and you are in the principal’s office” ultimatum. Think Kids gives the student the benefit of the doubt: He, in fact, is trying his best. She may be unable to sit still because of anxiety. They may be scared.

A teacher could say, “Hey, I’m trying to teach up here, and you’re back there and I know you’re a little anxious right now … how can we keep you in the classroom so that you can continue learning and be with your friends, and I can be up here teaching? What’s going to help you?” Maybe the student can walk back and forth in the back of the room, where he is not disturbing his classmates.

It is a win-win, says Belcastro. Kids learn they do not have to try to be like everyone else, and work in the classroom is more productive.

Belcastro does not intend to stop there. Though she has no specific plans in the works yet, she would like to bring NAMI into the elementary schools. She would like to help children to understand, to teach that it is okay to have a father or a mother with bipolar disorder. “The more we talk about it the less stigma there is,” she says.

May: Mental Health Awareness Month

Belcastro hopes to host dinner and mental health–themed movie nights for adults, and movie and snack programs for children, with a counselor on hand to facilitate a discussion after the movie. Last year, NAMI showed “As Good as It Gets,” starring Jack Nicholson as a writer with OCD, and “Inside Out,” a Disney movie about a child dealing with a variety of emotions in connection with a move. “It’s a great way to have a mental health discussion,” says Belcastro.

The biggest achievement of NAMI on-Island over the past few years may be just having a seat at the table. “NAMI is now proactively asked to be a part of the conversation early on with places like the Red House, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, the high school,” says Brennan.

“It’s awesome,” says Belcastro. Recently, Belcastro spoke at a Substance Use Disorder committee meeting, and she was able to tell the committee about the F2F course.

For some of the many more NAMI programs offered off-Island, see the sidebar to this story. Belcastro says NAMI may be able to provide some support, such as carpooling and boat expenses, to people interested in off-Island programs.

For further information, visit the NAMI national website,, the NAMI Massachusetts affiliate,, and the NAMI Cape and Islands affiliate, Call Island NAMI coordinator Lisa Belcastro at 508-776-3746.




More NAMI programs and resources


  • NAMI Basics is a program for parents of children with mental illness. The six-session course is available online 24/7, according to the website, and provides support and shared understanding. The course covers topics such as the impact of mental illness on families and how to respond to crises. Ninety-nine percent of parents who have taken the course, according to NAMI, recommend the course to others. 
  • NAMI Homefront is a six-week educational program for families, caregivers, and friends of military service members and veterans with mental health issues. NAMI Homefront provides support and shared understanding. Those who take NAMI Homefront learn about current treatments and therapies, how to manage stress, how to support a loved one with compassion, how to navigate the many challenges, and how to manage a crisis.


  • NAMI Peer-to-Peer is a class not for family members and friends, but for adults suffering from mental illness. The P2P program, according to NAMI, provides a safe place for folks with mental illness to grow and learn about recovery. Participants set goals, develop confidence, learn to manage their stress, share their story with others, strengthen their relationships with others and enhance their communication skills.  
  • There is a NAMI Helpline to call for help and support with mental illness, Monday through Friday, 10 am to 6 pm, 800-950-NAMI (6264). The staff are informed on NAMI programs, and trained to identify the best resources for the person calling. 
  • Other NAMI programs and resources include a 12-week course for family members and friends of folks suffering from borderline personality disorder or experiencing similar symptoms; a class for mental health professionals called NAMI Provider; a presentation called In Our Own Voice where those with lived experience tell the general public their story; NAMI Ending the Silence, a presentation designed for middle and high school students, school staff and parents. 

For further information, visit the NAMI national website,, the NAMI Massachusetts affiliate,, and the NAMI Cape and Islands affiliate, Call Island NAMI coordinator Lisa Belcastro at 508-776-3746.