For Lynn Plewes of Warminster, one of the hardest parts of caring for her three special-needs children was the isolation she felt.
Years ago, one of her daughters was diagnosed with childhood-onset schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder and was receiving psychiatric care by the age of 2. Another daughter has autism and intellectual disabilities, and her son struggles with learning disabilities.
“When you have a child with a mental health disorder, everyone seems to disappear,” Plewes said. “A lot of times, you’re told in a roundabout way that you’re not a good parent, that it’s your fault that your child is behaving this way.”
Plewes began an exhaustive search for someone who shared her experience. She tapped a network for parents of children with special needs, but the closest family she could find lived at the other end of the state.
Then, when she was almost ready to give up, she struck up a conversation with a new friend, who happened to know someone whose child also had childhood-onset schizophrenia.
That someone was Debbie Moritz, now the administrator of the Bucks County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Moritz became a friend to Plewes, introducing her to the camaraderie available at NAMI.
“She’s an angel,” Plewes said of Moritz. “She literally takes phone calls 12 hours a day, seven days a week, if needed. She’s always there and always such an inspiration to me.”
NAMI Bucks, which has about 200 members, provides support and advocacy for people recovering from mental illness and their families.
There are more people affected by mental illness than you may think. NAMI estimates that one out of 17 people has a severe and persistent mental illness and that half of those people show symptoms by age 14.
NAMI educates families and schools about the early warning signs and symptoms of these biological brain disorders and how to get effective treatment through free education classes and support groups, according to Moritz.
NAMI Bucks is one of 10 exceptional charities the newspaper is highlighting in its Do Gooder series for the good deeds they perform daily for area residents, like Lynn Plewes.
Plewes said NAMI’s support has been invaluable over the last decade and a half, as she has struggled to raise her children in a world that still largely stigmatizes mental illness.
“It’s almost like a family to me,” she said of NAMI. “Nobody outside really quite gets it. It’s one of those things you have to live through. … It’s nice to know that there’s someone out there who has gone through the same thing and can give you little, helpful hints and that sort of thing.”
The organization is mostly volunteer, and Plewes herself now teaches one of NAMI’s free classes, helping families with young children and adolescents diagnosed with mental illness. NAMI Bucks offers a variety of classes, all taught by family members and people living in recovery, Moritz said.
“We feel very strongly about that,” she said. “It’s not that we’re trying to replace professionals. … We couldn’t replace them.”
But, as Plewes said, families and people in recovery have a perspective that others may lack.
Besides running support groups and classes, NAMI provides 40-hour crisis intervention training for police officers, teaching them how to handle a mental health crisis in a way that keeps the ill person, the police officer and the community safe, Moritz said.
NAMI hosts public forums five times a year, inviting doctors and others to speak about mental health issues. And the group runs an annual fundraising walk to raise money and awareness.
This month, the alliance will begin teaching 50-minute health classes at area schools. They are designed to help students understand what their mentally ill peers undergo and to help them understand what such a person needs from a friend, Moritz said.
“The bottom line is they just need someone to be a friend, just like anybody else,” she said.
Six times a year, NAMI runs something called the Lower Bucks Consumer Club, which Moritz describes as a Sunday dinner that’s just about socializing and fun, not therapy or programming.
“A lot of these people are in programming all week,” she said. By the weekend, “they don’t want to hear it anymore.”
Moritz said she runs NAMI because she doesn’t want to see other families founder in the system the way she and Plewes did years ago. Moritz has two grown children, one of whom was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 12. Now 31, he’s married, has a job and is living “a life just like everybody else.”
But when her son was younger, Moritz struggled with the same isolation and confusion about where to go for help that Plewes did.
“I just don’t want to see other families go through feeling like they’re alone, because they’re not,” Moritz said.