Learning that a loved one has been diagnosed with a mental illness can be overwhelming.

“I had no idea where to go or what to do,” said Juanita Pena, a Napa resident and ParentsCan employee whose daughter was diagnosed with a schizoaffective disorder in the 1990s. “The families here in Napa County don’t have a place to get together and get that support they so desperately need. It’s something that is really missing locally.”

That missing support is why Pena has joined with other residents throughout the county in an effort to bring a chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to Napa. Pena, who has been leading the effort for more than a year, said that she believes the group is close to getting the needed resource in the city.

“The county has been supportive of our efforts,” she said Thursday. “Now it’s just time to get it done.”

To help move things along, Pena has teamed up with American Canyon resident Jeannette Goyetche to hold an informational meeting for residents and health care professionals at the Napa County Library on July 22 from 6 to 8 p.m.

Goyetche, who has been active in the Solano NAMI chapter since her son was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2006, said that the support she received from the Solano office has cemented her belief that Napa County needs a similar resource.

“NAMI has meant emotional and educational support for me,” she said. “It has helped me feel stronger and it has given me an outlet to help other families struggling with similar issues. Mental illness can be a long road. So the more resources we have for our families, the better.”

Goyetche said that when her son, now 26, was first diagnosed with a mental illness eight years ago, doctors said he had bipolar disorder.

“Later they said he had something else, and finally they settled on schizoaffective disorder, which is very similar,” she said. “NAMI wound up becoming like a second family during all of this. No one can really understand what our situation is like. I don’t even understand it all the time. So it’s a huge help to have that peer support from other families dealing with mental illness.”

When Pena’s daughter was first diagnosed, doctors in Napa County told her she would have to travel to Solano County to receive certain family support assistance. She vividly remembers the difficulty she encountered trying to navigate a mental health system that wasn’t always user-friendly.

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“It’s gotten better, but the family support is one thing that has always been missing in Napa County,” she said. “If we bring a chapter of NAMI to Napa, it will make a serious impact.”

Known as a grassroots national organization, NAMI provides countless programs for people diagnosed with a mental illness and their families. It was started in 1979 and has been a driving force behind national mental health legislation and funding.

Currently, the Solano NAMI chapter has about 60 members, according to Goyetche. “NAMI, in particular, is important because it gives us a platform to educate, advocate and support those people and families affected by mental illness,” she said.

For information on the July 22 informational meeting at the Napa County Library, email Juanita Pena at jpena@parentscan.org.

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