Addressing WNC’s mental health concernsFeb 10, 2024 09:04AM ● By Randee Brown
Celebrating their 40th anniversary in 2025, WNC’s National Alliance on Mental Illness is one of more than 700 affiliates across the country. This Alliance largely consists of family members who advocate, support, and care for those living with mental illness.
There are NAMI affiliates in every state in the U.S. North Carolina is home to 20, including WNC and South Mountains, which cover about 60 counties of the state.
While some other affiliates have large networks and many staff, NAMI WNC is led mostly by volunteers, and had been entirely so until recently. Now, the organization has one full time executive director and two employees facilitating programming. They plan to add staff in order to expand programs and serve more patients.
The group’s more than 100 active volunteer members are seeing an increase in the need for support as more people feel comfortable coming forward with their issues, so they are building on the national NAMI model to expand the support for mental health care in the area.
“Mental illness consists of a wide spectrum and variety of diagnoses,” NAMI Executive Director Robin Payne said. “It used to be a shameful thing to talk about, but this is a place with no shame or stigma. We are building relationships with these patients and creating huge advocacy and research arms in order to help.”
About 500 individuals annually engage with NAMI through various programming including support groups and educational events. Originally funded with one bequest, the organization is working on cash flow projections to learn where to look to raise funds.
“We haven’t sought funds in a while,” Payne said. “While memberships run between $5 and $60, we will be working with local organizations and corporations and applying for grants to gain the capital needed to provide more services, and potentially looking to generate our own revenue through additional programming.”
In addition to support groups, workshops, and educational programs, NAMI works with several mental health providers in the region including October Road, SeekHealing, and Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness, according to Payne. These partners help make up the web of Vaya Health — a local management entity that funnels Medicaid funds to providers.
There are also peer connections within the organization that help patients transitioning out of long-term mental health care facilities like Copestone and Sweeten Creek Mental Health and Wellness Center.
“Many patients come right to us when they leave those types of facilities,” Payne said. “This demonstrates the considerable need for organizations like ours within the community.”
Some of NAMI’s members are active in lobbying for community inclusion, funding for patients transitioning out of mental health facilities, insurance coverage, and additional avenues of local support.
With NAMI board members working at Vaya and some sitting on Buncombe County Health Justice Collaborative, members bring information on patterns and needs within the mental health space. They are noticing more mental health mentions across a variety of media outlets and seeing the numbers of support groups growing large enough to split into two, which Payne said is an indicator that more people are feeling comfortable reaching out regarding mental health needs.
One trend NAMI has noticed is an increase in major mental health diagnoses in younger age groups. The numbers of schizoaffective or bipolar disorder diagnoses among individuals 18 to 22 years old is growing, and anxiety and depression have increased among youth since the pandemic.
Payne said this is encouraging the growth of more agencies focusing on the trifecta of mental health, substance abuse, and homelessness.
“We are at a crisis point of having enough mental health providers to serve everyone who needs help,” Payne said. “We have several agencies in the area, but position vacancies exist in all of them. It’s not an easy field to work in, especially for those on the front lines, and there are only so many resources to go around.”