Information provides empowerment. Empathy brings solace, and out of chaos comes clarity. The NAMI Helpline has the people and tools to shepherd a caller through each one of these critical moments. Oftentimes, the need can be all three at once.
Kathy Forward, former executive director of NAMI Santa Clara County, said, “The Helpline is the hardest job here.” But that doesn’t stop the seven staff members and three volunteers from giving each caller the necessary time to help an individual sort through the relentless trauma when loved ones face crisis—what NAMI Helpline Manager, Sarah Prabhu, calls customized one-on-one support.
Helpline operators intimately understand callers. They too are caregivers and consumers, a job requirement that enables them to offer support and the right tools for empowerment. Qualifying for such a position doesn’t come with haste. Individuals need to shadow with a trained operator and volunteer for an extended period of time to make sure talents match. In addition to exhibiting empathy and strong people skills, individuals need computer skills and the ability to be quick on their feet, since each call is unique. Currently, NAMI-Santa Clara County fields about 11-14 calls a day.
Initially, the caller has so much happening that the conversation can be chaotic,” Prabhu said. “As they talk, their mind will become less scrambled; it will quiet and they begin to articulate their problem which helps clarify what they need.” To achieve this clarity, the Helpline operator listens through service, support, and wisdom to provide appropriate information. The most common calls include difficulty in accessing mental health services due to the laws, finding board and care facilities, and families putting shame and blame on themselves.
The Helpline has tools for each of these callers. Navigating the system may mean dealing with HIPAA regulations. NAMI has form AB 1424 to help families communicate with doctors about a loved one’s mental health history, medications, and contacts. For individuals who have been arrested, the Helpline can guide the caller to a family jail support group. For individuals in immediate crisis, the Helpline can guide the caller to the Santa Clara County Mobile Crisis Response team. The first call doesn’t have to be to 911. For those suffering with shame and blame, NAMI has classes and support groups to educate and empower them.
Weeding Through the Information
Individuals can feel overwhelmed by the vastness of information on the NAMI website. Prabhu knows this and said families shouldn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and reach out to the Helpline any time. “As often as needed,” she said. “We are here to help.” Operators are there to provide targeted assistance in a simple, digestible manner. “We have been there and understand the emails need to be in a simple, bulleted form. Not long lists of information.”
Prabhu added, “The mission of NAMI’s Helpline is to educate you on the tools you need to help prepare so you are ready when a crisis happens, like having Form 1424 filled out and available at a moment’s notice to hand to the healthcare team at a hospital.” She also wants callers to understand that operators are not trained healthcare professionals or therapists. “We are volunteers who have a loved one with mental health challenges and are here to support, and provide information. This is a non-crisis resource. That’s why it is a Helpline not a Hotline.”
The Helpline is also considered an essential service. Even before businesses received such designations, Forward sensed a disruption about to happen and made sure everything went remote three days before California Gov. Gavin Newsom shut down the state on March 19, 2020.
Prabhu has witnessed the power of this essential service when a mother called from Los Angeles unable to locate her son. He had walked away from an unlocked Santa Clara County residential treatment facility. The Helpline posted her son’s information on NAMI’s Facebook page. The post caught a viral wave with 10,000 views. The police saw it and found the young man in San Francisco. This process has been successful on several occasions.
“The experiences on the local level have been just as meaningful,” Prabhu added. One caller said, “Thank you so very much for being on the other end of the line today. Words can’t express my gratitude. I have been handling everything alone and cry tears of joy for your kindness, understanding, and help today.”
For Prabhu and her team, mental health journey may seem like a sprint, but it’s more of a marathon. “I have seen so many lives turn around. It just takes time,” she said. “A mom called to tell us that her son is in treatment after months of difficult things she had to go through in their relationship. This mom devoted herself to learning and attending support groups as advised at the Helpline. She earned his trust and finally got him into treatment. Today, she called to update us. She didn’t have to do it. You see, when you come to NAMI, you become family. That is why she called. To give an update to her NAMI family.”
Contact the Helpline: Mon-Fri 10 A.M.-6 P.M. at 408-453-0400 option 1; after-hours voicemail service Mon-Fri 6-9 P.M. and Sat-Sun Noon-6 P.M. at 408-453-0400 option 4; or go to https://namisantaclara.org/classes/warmline/