Q&A with Kevin Fischer, NAMI Michigan

Kevin Fischer is the executive director of NAMI Michigan. NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. The local affiliate, NAMI Midland County, offers monthly support groups and an in-depth, 8-week program called “Family to Family” for family members and caregivers of persons with a mental illness. All programs are free and facilitated by volunteers.

A retired businessman, Fischer joined NAMI as a volunteer in 2011 after his oldest son, Dominique, was diagnosed with a mental illness in late 2007 and was lost to suicide in 2010. After serving on the NAMI Michigan Board of Directors as the NAMIWalks Chairperson for two years and as Board Vice-President for two years, Fischer accepted the role of Executive Director in 2014.

Congress designated the first full week in October as Mental Illness Awareness Week. NAMI Michigan will hold their annual state conference in Midland, Oct. 19-20, at the H Hotel in downtown Midland. In advance of these two events, Fischer speaks about efforts to improve care and offers advice so you can help someone you know who’s struggling with a mental illness.

Q: What can someone do to help a family member, friend, or colleague experiencing a mental health issue?

A: The first approach is let’s move past the stigma associated with mental illness and recognize your loved one is not the only one. We need to normalize it and educate ourselves. If a person in your family is affected, then let’s embrace that individual and help them get the help they need. 

People ask what should you do if a friend or colleague needs help. I say be a friend in the simplest form. Don’t run away from them. Help them. Say, “Can I go with you? Can I take you to get help?” 

NAMI Midland County was one of several nonprofits selected to benefit from the Dow GLBI tournament in July. Volunteers wore t-shirts, emphasizing the effort to reduce stigma.If it’s your co-worker or friend who might have a family member with a problem, I’d say, “I notice you've withdrawn; you’re not yourself. Is there something going on at home?” Then, when they’re willing to open up, be willing to listen instead of saying, “I don’t know anything about that” and run away. Ask, “How can I help you get through this?”

Q: How can a community help? What can local, state, and federal authorities do? 

A: I was recently at a community forum where Detroit-Wayne wants to open a crisis center, but the residents don’t want that in their neighborhood. People need to understand that 1 in 4 Americans are affected by mental illness. You need resources in your community, and you need to know what those resources are. When you see homeless people, 40% of them have a mild to moderate underlying mental health issue. Over 40% who have a substance use problem also have a mental health issue. These people need resources to be available to them. We have a responsibility to take care of our most vulnerable citizens. Ignoring that will only make it get worse.

We need more behavioral health professionals, behavioral health care facilities and beds. We need more investment of financial resources. We know that the public behavioral health care system is underfunded. We also know that in the state of Michigan, there are less than 3,000 beds (about 300 for youth and 2,600-2,700 for adults), but we have more than 300,000 who receive public behavioral health care services in a year. That doesn’t include the people covered by private insurance. 

We know there’s a shortage of professionals, psychiatrists, psychologists. There are a limited number of slots in medical schools. We need to encourage more people to study and become behavioral health care professionals and make sure that there are slots available to them and financial resources to help them complete their degrees. Quite frankly, they leave medical school with a high level of debt. Entry-level, direct care workers, social workers — these are not high-paying jobs. Few go into the public health system because the compensation is less compared to private practice.

I recently had to help a woman get care for her 11 or 12-year-old son, a severe case, here in Michigan. Otherwise, he would have to go to some other state. In the private sector, the professionals can cherry-pick and select cases that are less severe.
NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
Q: What content will be presented at the conference in Midland?

A: There will be a lot of information about what resources are available. We’re going to talk about how to respond to mental health situations. There are a lot of models out there for a community to adopt. The conference will also include information about how a person’s illness impairs their ability to see that they need services. That’s called anosognosia; it precludes a person from understanding that they need treatment. 

Q: Are we making progress?

A: Short answer — I will say yes. I think we’ve made small steps forward but we have so much more to do.  

Read more articles by Ron Beacom.

Ron Beacom has served as the managing editor of Catalyst Midland since October 2020. He's also a freelance writer for the Midland Daily News and the producer/host of "Second Act: Life at 50 Plus" for WDCQ-Delta College Public Media (PBS). He's the co-producer of two WDCQ documentaries about the Tittabawassee River Disaster in 2020, "Breached! and Breached!2-The Recovery."