Why mental illness is the ‘no-casserole’ illness

Francine Harbour, executive director of NAMI Anchorage, spoke about living with mental illness during a legislative “Lunch and Learn” Wednesday. Her son, Brandon Williams, joined her. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

Francine Harbour said recovery from mental illness is a “four-legged stool” – professional counseling, medication, peer support, and her own strength. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

Executive director of NAMI Juneau Dov Gartenberg moderated a panel discussion on living with mental illness. The panel included Dr. John Pappenheim, a psychiatrist at Bartlett Regional Hospital. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

The panel discussion on NAMI was sponsored by Rep. Cathy Munoz. Cosponsors posed with NAMI panelists after the event. From left to right: Rep. Sam Kito III, Brandon Williams, Pastor Susan Boegli, NAMI Anchorage President Pam Robinson, Rep. Geran Tarr, Rep. Benjamin Nageak, NAMI Juneau Executive Director Dov Gartenberg and NAMI Anchorage Executive Director Francine Harbour. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)


Pam Robinson calls mental illness the “no-casserole illness,” even though she says it’s just like any other physical illness, like cancer or diabetes.

She recalled the reaction when two people close to her were hospitalized.

“One person was hospitalized with cancer. The other person was hospitalized with a mental illness. The person with cancer, I had almost too much support. I had to thank people and say, ‘Please, no more casseroles. I have no room in my refrigerator.’ And I was so grateful for all of that. Not so much with the person diagnosed with mental illness. We call mental illness the ‘no-casserole illness.’”

Robinson is a psychologist and president of the Anchorage affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She was part of a panel discussion Wednesday in the State Capitol Building where NAMI advocates shared firsthand accounts of living with mental illness, turning extremely personal matters into public ones.

When Brandon Williams was in his early teens, his mother was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder.

“When you have a mom with bipolar disorder, you don’t always know which mom you’re going to get. You know, sometimes you’re going to get the mom that’s on top of the world, ready to conquer everything – ‘What school assignments do you have? Let’s knock them out.’ And sometimes you get the mom that’s just so low and inconsolable that there’s nothing that can bring her out of it,” Williams said.

After numerous visits to the doctor, which didn’t fix anything, his mother eventually found the resources and services that started to help.

“She found NAMI where she found peer support, where she found people that understood and that she could actually talk to about what she was going through without being isolated or ashamed or alone, which was life changing and revolutionary,” Williams said.

NAMI specializes in peer-driven support and education. Groups and programs are led by trained individuals who have experienced mental illness or family members of people who’ve experienced mental illness.

Through a combination of NAMI resources, mental health education and medication, Williams said his mother recovered.

“My mom finally got to a place where she was someone that was completely controlled by her illness to having complete control over her illness. Our family didn’t fall apart,” he said.

Williams is an adult now. He’s the training and development manager for NAMI Anchorage. His mother, Francine Harbour, is the executive director.

“Talking about mental illness is difficult,” Harbour said. “People look at me now and say, ‘Really? You were that sick?’ And I go, ‘Yeah.’”

Harbour said state grants are crucial to making mental health treatment available. The problem, she said, is most legislators don’t often hear from people suffering from mental illness.

“Because of the stigma, most people who have experienced recovery don’t want to come out and say it, because they don’t want to be associated with that past,” Harbour said.

Susan Boegli is a pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Juneau. She said she isn’t afraid of the stigma and made the decision to out herself.

“I am bipolar. I’ve suffered from depression since I was a teenager. So I’m here in front of all of you and saying, ‘Yes, I am a leader, a spiritual leader in the community and I do, too, suffer from mental illness.’”

Boegli doesn’t consider herself recovered, but through the support of her family and NAMI resources, she’s managing her illness.

NAMI advocates spent several days this week in the Capitol. It had been several years since their last organized appearance there.