NAMI Queens/Nassau Friendship Network
By FN staff: Alice Cohen, Nancy Schlessel and Barbara Garner
The NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Queens/Nassau Friendship Network was born out of need. Although adults with mental illness have the same needs as everyone else, they have a much tougher time meeting these needs. The ‘double whammy’ of isolation and stigma, in addition to the illness, makes the illness that much harder to bear. All the medical progress and new medications do not alleviate the loneliness of ‘the long distance runner.’
Rod Steiger, a well known actor, who suffered from major depression, often said that “companionship…companionship…companionship” is crucial to recovery. Most people are able to call a friend and either schmooze, meet for a cup of coffee, or go to a movie. Not so for the mentally ill. Many of those who are ill do not even have a supportive family member.
In December of 1992, the NYTimes published a front-page article lauding the birth of the Friendship Network, an idea whose time had come. The NAMI Queens/Nassau Friendship Network has done much to solve the loneliness problem. There are one-on-one introductions for ‘friendship’ purposes and group activities, where those who attend bond and network. The activities include group tennis lessons, two bowling sessions monthly, monthly Friday night discussion group with a social worker, monthly men’s group with a counselor, monthly ‘schmooze’ group with Alice Cohen, the Founder and Director, a weekly nutrition/diet/art group and other sporadic activities including, workshops on employment and sexuality, at members’ request. Every summer, a barbecue is held in Cunningham Park, enjoyed by more than 50 members, with games, plenty of food and fun. Members meet, exchange numbers and develop a support system that has been lacking in their lives.
In addition to all these activities, there is an abundance of volunteer work available with the Friendship Network and the NAMI office, requiring several people to cooperate on a given project. This serves as a motivation for some to return to work. The experience is beneficial for members because even though one may be proficient in an area, it is equally important to be able to work with colleagues.
Members must complete a lengthy application, sign a membership contract, obtain a signed doctor release, and reach a high level of stability, before being accepted into the Friendship Network.
Members are able to develop connections with others and have a more fulfilling life in a comfortable social setting. Some never had the opportunity to acquire adult social skills and graces, and never experienced mature relationships. They spent their critical maturing years warding off ‘voices’ and being tranquilized on heavy-duty medications. Can you imagine the joy and satisfaction members enjoy when they can find someone with whom they can share their feelings, and be special, without fear of stigma!
Unfortunately, the need for socialization has not been recognized as critical to the recovery process, thereby precluding funding, except from private contributions. Recognizing that most of those who wish to partake in the Friendship Network do not have the financial wherewithal to pay any fee, there is a sliding scale. Some of the contributions go toward scholarships for those without any means.
Psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and social workers, have seen their patients improve because their loneliness has abated. It has been a life-altering experience for all.