WAUKESHA — As societies become more complex and filled with stress, mental health issues mount, and Jefferson County certainly has not been immune to this in 2019.

To address the problem, county officials have found a partner in the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Waukesha Peer Support Line.

The peer support line is a non-crisis support phone line for people with mental health conditions that is operated by people with what NAMI calls “lived experience.” These operators have been trained to serve as peer specialists.

The support line is open every day except Tuesdays and Wednesdays, predominantly in the afternoons and evenings.

Mary Madden, who leads NAMI, said the organization began in Dane County in 1979 when three women who had adult children diagnosed with mental illness wanted better lives for their loved ones. Originally incorporated as the Alliance for the Mentally Ill (AMI), the name later was changed to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, known as the more familiar acronym NAMI.

“At that time, the service delivery system was not very kind to families and often blamed the mother for the child’s illness,” Madden said. “These pioneering women understood that the best chance for recovery for their loved ones was to understand and educate each other about the illness, provide emotional support to each other and advocate for better services. They also worked to increase research regarding brain diseases.”

This grassroots organization quickly grew to be the largest in the United States and has close to 1,000 state and local affiliates across the country. NAMI Waukesha was incorporated in 1982.

Madden said the mission of NAMI Waukesha is similar to that of all NAMI organizations, which is “to provide support, education and advocacy for people affected by mental illness.”

Madden stressed the value of having operators of the peer support line who have personal experience with mental illness.

“Our peer line operators are people who are living in recovery with their own mental health condition. We expect them to either be trained as peer specialists through the curriculum that has been approved for Wisconsin, or they need to be working toward training,” Madden said, adding that NAMI currently has three operators.

Madden has been working in the field of mental health services for almost 35 years, in organizations that provide community-based programs. During her tenure, she said, she has seen many people who were estranged from their families and often this was because the family did not get the support it needed to understand how to support the loved one.

“I understood, from a personal perspective, the challenges that families face, and I wanted to be in a position where I could make a difference for families and individuals,” Madden said. “Stigma is still the number-one reason people do not seek help for mental health conditions and I want to do everything I can to decrease stigma and help people understand that they are not alone.”

Madden said NAMI Waukesha has an amazing staff, and volunteers who are all passionate and dedicated to making a difference. They work to reduce stigma, and help families and individuals find their own path to recovery.

“This is a great team and those we serve motivate me every day,” she said.

While continually being inspired by NAMI staff, Madden said she sees funding as a never-ending challenge for an organization such as NAMI.

“We provide all of our family, and peer education and support services free of charge. Each year, the team works hard to be able to achieve that,” she said. “In addition, requests for our services continue to increase. When there is not a NAMI located in a neighboring county, such as Jefferson, we help provide services for those counties when we can.”

NAMI’s funding is diverse and it has partnered with Waukesha County Health and Human Services and Jefferson County Human Services to provide peer support and peer line services on a contracted basis. NAMI also receives funding from fundraising events, grants, private donations, corporate donations, the United Way and the department of health services. The last of this funding is part of a contract to provide services for those experiencing homelessness who are affected by mental illness.

NAMI began its partnership with Jefferson County Human Services in early 2013.

“It was then that we collaborated with Jefferson County to provide crisis intervention training for law enforcement,” Madden said. “We expanded our partnership in 2014, when we hired a certified peer specialist to work within their community support program. The recent expansion in our partnership began in April 2019, with the implementation of the peer line.

The program in Jefferson County is funded by tax levy.

“We asked for $25,000 to be dedicated to this resource for 2019,” Jefferson County Human Services Director Kathi Cauley said. “The Finance Committee and county board supported and approved the funding. It is included in our 2020 budget. We are also looking for grant opportunities to support it.”

Peer phone line operators can experience any number of different scenarios when they answer a call.

“Sometimes callers just want someone to talk to,” Madden said. “Often people living with mental health conditions are isolated and lonely, and the peer line gives them an opportunity to connect with someone. Other types of calls come from people who are interested in learning more about recovery, or connecting with the system of services. Sometimes callers are dealing with suicidal thoughts and reaching out for a connection.”

The peer line operators sometimes will refer people to other services such as the National Suicide Hotline or Hopeline.

Jake Kuderski, 35, is a thriving survivor of mental health issues, and is a marketing assistant and peer counselor for NAMI Waukesha. His life has seen such change that he is now a digital music film composer and music producer at Trancesky Productions “Music For the Senses.”

Kuderski, born and raised in southeastern Wisconsin, said he has risen above his issues and now is able to help others facing similar challenges, as a counselor.

“I am identified with a mood disorder since my early adulthood,” Kuderski said. “Through psychiatry, therapies, support groups, educational classes and putting my health on top-priority each day, I am able to manage a balanced lifestyle. With a sharp conscious awareness to my disorder and understanding how my mood can flux, I am able to maintain stability in my well-being and advocate for myself ahead of time if any major changes in mood start happening.”

Kuderski became certified as a peer specialist in 2018.

“After this, I applied to a few jobs, locally, where they were looking for a certified peer specialist. I started a part-time position at NAMI as a marketing assistant. That was soon followed with working the peer line.”

As a peer specialist, Kuderski said, he helps alleviate anxiety, depression, worry, every-day struggles, fears and stress in callers.

“I also guide peers to resources where they can find the support needed in their county,” he said.

Active in his peer work for a little more than a year, Kuderski said that so far, he has noticed mental health issues vary day-by-day with any diagnosis.

“One day a peer may call and have little to discuss, while other days, their symptoms may take over their lifestyle,” he said.

Kuderski said he enjoys working the peer line, supporting others who have mental health issues and helping them reach their potential.

“My goal is to use strength-based training to encourage others in finding their passion. If a peer mentions they used to play the guitar back in the day and calls later, informing me they have a few songs they wrote, I know I have encouraged them. That, to me, is success,” he said.

Kuderski said callers seem to like to talk to the different peer specialists, rather than just working with one.

“Our staff is on a basic, routine schedule. A lot of our regular peers enjoy speaking to each one of us to find different approaches that will help them in their recovery,” Kuderski said.

And what does he gain from doing his counseling duties?

“I would not expect a gain in helping another out in their struggles. What I do, though, is give out hope, compassion and empathy,” he said. “In many ways, the world works better giving than gaining. However, (peer callers) give a lot of knowledge and insight into disorders, too, and I can learn from them.”

Kuderski said he will be a peer counselor as long as he is in good health.

“I will advocate for recovery in myself and others,” he said. “Becoming a helping hand to people who struggle with mental health and substance use disorders is a calling I will be pursuing lifelong.”

As with almost all jobs, there are good and bad points to being a peer counselor, Kuderski said.

“An irregular pace in calls and having a time limit for each caller does set some restriction at times. But overall, our peers who call in have left many warm thankyous and even follow-ups to let us know that their days are going well. Once examined, life really is recovery. Our health should always be considered a priority in any spectrum of our daily lives. With recovery, maintaining a balanced life is possible,” Kuderski said.

Cauley said she wants everyone to know the support line is free and available, with highly trained people answering the phone.

“We want people to know that anyone can call and get help. We believe that having contact early with someone who has training, expertise and lived experience can solve a number of issues and be preventive,” she said.

According to Cauley, Jefferson County officials value the peer support line because research has shown that a person with mental health issues talking to someone with a similar personal experience is helpful and provides hope. Additionally the support line allows for non-emergency calls to have a viable resource, other than the county crisis workers.

In addition to being able to talk with people such as Kuderski, callers with mental health concerns can connect with a certified peer support specialist who is from Jefferson County. This person also staffs the line part time.

“So, it’s helpful in two ways,” Cauley said. “There is a trained, certified peer support specialist right here — someone with lived mental health experience — and we believe we will send a reduction in calls to our crisis staff.”

Cauley said the person working physically within Jefferson County has extensive training and works in the county’s community support program as a mental health technician.

“She provides active-listening, validation, problem-solving and teaches specific skills,” Cauley said. “She also shares relevant experiences from her personal history. So that person she is talking with knows that she has been there and is now thriving.”

Cauley called the ties between Jefferson County and NAMI Waukesha, “a great partnership.”

She said, together, the county and NAMI have brought in mental health educators for Jefferson County law enforcement officials multiple times to coach sheriff’s department staff in how to deal with the mentally ill who are in crisis. This has resulted in one of the highest levels of such training of any officers in the state.

“We hope to continue to grow this partnership and expand resources here,” Cauley said.

To access the NAMI Waukesha Peer Support Line, call (262) 409-2752. The hours of the line are Saturdays and Sundays from 2 to 6 p.m., and Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays from 6 to 9 p.m.

The peer support line does not operate on holidays. Calls are limited to 15 minutes and callers are permitted two per night, to allow others access.

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