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03/23/2023 02:18 PM

Billboards Point the Way to Help, Hope, Support

NAMI Shoreline Wants You to Know How to Speak Up, How to Get Help

The billboards that line the roadways and highways of Connecticut’s shoreline advertise a wide range of services and goods. Driving to work, we might be tempted by a billboard that points us towards a waffle sandwich to go with our morning coffee. Driving home from work, we might be reminded of a classic rock station we had forgotten about, or learn about a new fun restaurant to try.

In the past few months, a new message has joined the others, a message that could motivate someone to help create change, that could help someone in the depths of despair, or that could even help save a life. “When my loved one struggles with mental health, I struggle,” reads one. “Our largest health care facilities are our prisons. Help not handcuffs,” reads another.

Commissioned and paid for by NAMI Shoreline, the goal of these billboards is to let people know they are not alone with their struggle to help a loved one in the midst of a mental health crisis, and to encourage people to help change a system where 30% of people who are incarcerated in Connecticut, about 2,988 people, are suffering from a serious mental illness, many of them un-sentenced, and often without the proper support or treatment that could help them get well.

One billboard ran in Old Saybrook, another in Madison. More billboards are planned, including one in Branford that will let people know about specific support groups and another in Clinton, which will focus on younger people experiencing mental distress.

The goal of NAMI, which stands for National Alliance on Mental Health, is to let people know they are here, and that they stand ready to help people as they struggle with mental health and systems that sometimes seem designed to make things worse rather than better.

“NAMI’s main mission is that we work to improve the quality of life for people with mental illness, and their loved ones, through support, education, advocacy, and public awareness,” says Jen D’Amato, the president of NAMI Shoreline. “So step one is public awareness. It had to be.”

Beyond The Billboards

Now that they have your attention, this is what they’d like you to know:

And that, perhaps most important, when dealing with all of these monumental issues, that you are not alone. Help, support, camaraderie; they are available and available now.

These are big issues that can seem insurmountable, but there is good news, too. Connecticut, through its state budget with the support of Gov. Ned Lamont in 2022 pledged $100 million to improve mental health services across the state. The key, say D’Amato, and Divinna Schmidt, NAMI Shoreline’s vice president, is for advocates to make sure the money is spent in a way that truly will make a difference.

Free Education, Support Available Now

For those who need support now, D’Amato and Schmidt point to two NAMI Shoreline education programs.

“One is called NAMI Basics. That is an on-demand virtual program and it is designed for people who are caring for someone who is 18 or younger with mental health issues,” she says.

The six-session education program is free to participants, and NAMI Shoreline’s website says that 99% of people who have taken it say they would recommend it to others. Participants will learn about how mental health conditions can affect the entire family and about different types of treatment options and therapies. It also provides an overview of the mental health care system to help parents and guardians navigate school and so-called juvenile justice systems, along with how to advocate for a child’s rights at school and in health care settings. It also lets parents and guardians know how to prepare for the possibility of a crisis situation, including attempts at self-harm and suicide attempts. It also emphasizes the importance of the caregiver caring for him or herself as well.

Find out more about NAMI Basics here:

NAMI Shoreline also offers an eight-session program called Family to Family. They just had a class wrap up in November, and they plan to start another in September, and then again in March 2024.

“That is an education program for families or loved ones who might be working with an adult with a mental health concern, you know, people who are caring for someone,” says D’Amato. “We go over different mental health conditions, how to prepare for a crisis. And, and this part is really important, we talk about what to say if you have to call in law enforcement teams, and what not to say, and how to try to get the proper response. Because the really important thing here is to foster a collaborative effort where the community and family and police officers are working together.”

Find out more about Family to Family here:

If you’re not sure which program is right, or have questions about any of it, D’Amato and Schmidt encourage people to contact them through the links on this page, and also to sign up for the newsletter on the same page:

If You Have To Call The Police

D’Amato and Schmidt agree it can be a fraught proposition for a family member to call the police to help with another family member who is in the midst of a dangerous health crisis. The Family to Family class has a whole session on how to de-escalate in the home to try to avoid doing that. And then, even if police officers do have to be called in, it can be done in a way that is less threatening to the person experiencing the mental health crisis, and so then for the police officers as well.

NAMI Shoreline also is advocating for more mental health beds in Connecticut and for more training for police officers, who may bring their compassion to the situation, but who otherwise may not have been provided with any tools other than their law enforcement training. D’Amato and Schmidt say that it’s important for as many police officers as possible to receive Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) to help provide them with the tools to do this part of their job safely and effectively. Find out more about CIT here:

“This is, honestly, something we should have done a long, long time ago,” says D’Amato. “We have kind of put police officers in a position that is unfair to them, where they are being asked to step into this huge gap in our mental health care system where we just do not have the places to care for people when they need a place to stay when they need that care.”

According to statistics provided during a recent legislative hearing on the issue, even as almost 3,000 people with a serious mental illness are incarcerated in Connecticut, there were only 615 state psychiatric beds in Connecticut as of 2016, the most recent year that figures were available, down from 741 in 2010. So, that means that Connecticut, like all too many other states, throws more people with serious mental illnesses in prison rather than providing them with a place to get well.

“So these people keep getting pushed out back in the world when they are not functioning well,” says D’Amato. “And then the police officers get called again to help. And eventually their hands might be tied, they may not be sure what to do. So they end up arresting people that probably should not be arrested, but it might seem like there is no good alternative.”

CIT provides officers with tools to help them recognize when someone might be experiencing a mental health crisis, along with strategies for how to deescalate the situation. “There are things you can do as simple as not shouting and not talking very loudly. When someone is in psychosis, that is just going to make the problems so much worse,” says A’mato. “Whereas, if they have the tools to calm them down, it could be a totally different outcome.”

She says, without the training, outcomes can be disastrous. “I mean, people get killed over this stuff, because things get out of control,” she says. “We also have people with serious mental illness in our prison systems with correctional officers caring for them, people who might have the least amount of training. So this training helps them recognize symptoms and helps the officer respond appropriately to those symptoms. It helps the officers do their job in a way that is safer for everyone.”

Thanks to recent legislative initiatives, there is now more money for CIT, says D’Amato.

Focusing On How Things Are, Not How They Look

But, ideally, people with mental health issues, and families caring for someone with a mental health issue should also seek care before it becomes a crisis. For that to happen, say D’Amato and Schmidt, it’s important for everyone to work to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness, and for families to really, truly focus on the way things are, rather than worrying about how things might look to neighbors, friends, and other family members.

D’Amato says she suffered from social anxiety from the time she was a child. “I dropped out of high school. It severely affected me in my 20s. I didn’t get to experience college. I didn’t get to go to the prom,” she says. “What I was hearing was, ‘tough it out, kid.’”

She says it’s so, so much better for parents to step in and help children who may be experiencing any kind of mental health issue, even if it seems to them a mild discomfort. “It will make their lives a lot easier,” says D’Amato.

Both D’Amato and Schmidt agree it can be scary, particularly for parents who may be worried that mental health issues could proceed to the point where the child might hurt him or herself or kill him or herself.

“Children might come to their parents and say, I’m worried, and so the parents are worried, and they want to say something that’s cheerful, something that gives the sense that everything will be OK,” says Schmidt. ‘So they say, ‘you’re fine!’ ‘Look what you did yesterday, just do that today!’ Instead, maybe they could ask, ‘tell me more. What’s up? I wonder what that’s about. Wow, you feel scared. What do you mean by scared.’” In other words, parents should help their children figure out what’s going on so they can talk about it honestly, rather than try to cover it up.

“The kids need to be able to express themselves, and it’s far better if it’s a parent,” says Schmidt. “So many parents are afraid to touch it. And I understand that. The stigma relates to suicide, and there is this false belief that if you mention it, they will do it. But that could not be farther from the truth. The key is to ask and then, if they need help, figure out how to get that. But that is a roadblock that stops important conversations.”

Schmidt adds that it’s a roadblock not just for parents, but also in some school systems that refuse to offer programs that would help end the silence around mental health issues. “Something has to be said,” she says. “It’s like being afraid to tell your mom you have a cold and then you wait until you have pneumonia.”

NAMI is working hard to get a curriculum introduced in schools that would help with this, but they have run into resistance. “It just hasn’t happened,” says Schmidt. “And I think it relates to the stigma.”

Despite the seemingly intractable nature of the problems, D’Amato and Schmidt says part of the purpose of the billboards is to make sure parents, children, school officials, police officers, everyone, anyone are all aware that help is available and available now. And for those who feel like this is an important issue, now is the time to speak out to make sure available funding is spent the right way by the state.

“It can be such a frustrating system,” says D’Amato. “And so knowing you are not alone battling it is the key for a lot of people getting through it without completely breaking down. Our biggest message is, ‘you are not alone.’ Not with any of this.” She says that when one of her children experienced a mental health crisis, she took the Family to Family course and she credits it with both helping her to seek support and also saving her marriage.

“It is a rocky road,” says Schmidt. “We hear the stories. We have our own stories ourselves. For me, it’s with my son. So it’s important that we share our stories so that people can see there is some hope, some help. There’s some scary stuff too, and lots of stuff in between. But it’s important to know there is that camaraderies and to realize you are not alone.”

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States by calling or texting 988. It is free and confidential. To find out more, visit To find out more about NAMI, to sign up for programs, and to sign up for information about legislative initiatives and other news, visit

A recent NAMI Shoreline billboard in Old Saybrook Photo courtesy of NAMI Shoreline
A recent NAMI Shoreline billboard in Madison Photo courtesy of NAMI Shoreline
Crisis Intervention Team training in Guilford Photo courtesy of NAMI Shoreline
A NAMI Shoreline support group Photo courtesy of NAMI Shoreline