A conversation about mental health with NAMI Chattanooga’s Laura Pierce

Meet Laura Pierce, a support group facilitator + board president of NAMI Chattanooga, a local affiliate of the larger National Alliance on Mental Illness.

NOOGAtoday | Q+A with Laura Pierce

Read more for mental health resources in Chattanooga.

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This piece is part of our NOOGAtoday Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.

Editor Kristen here. I got the chance to speak with Laura Pierce, the current board president and support group facilitator of NAMI Chattanooga, a 501c(3) nonprofit and local affiliate of the greater National Alliance of Mental Health.

I asked Laura 10 questions about mental health, including tips + resources Chattanoogans can utilize.

How did you become involved in the mental health community in Chattanooga?

My son began presenting with signs of mental illness when he was in college. We really didn’t know what we were seeing until about three years later when he was finally diagnosed. I struggled so hard to find information about his illness and how to support him. I was eventually pointed in the direction of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, and the information on their website finally helped me start to digest some of what I was seeing play out in real life. Reading about NAMI nationally led me to our NAMI Chattanooga affiliate, where I began to attend support groups and educational classes.

The help I was given by [NAMI] was immeasurable. They took me during our family’s hardest days and wrapped me with support. So in the really awful part of mental illness, I found a second family that has really shown up.

How do you see individuals and organizations in Chattanooga working to break the stigma that’s often associated with mental health?

At NAMI, we talk about our own stories, both within our support groups and classes, and outside of them. In our support group guidelines, we say that “we use first and last names because using only first names implies that there is shame in mental illness.” I think that we can reduce stigma by getting a little vulnerable and sharing — one story at a time.

What are some of the mental health resources available to Chattanoogans?

  • NAMI Chattanooga has a resource line you can call at 423-521-2590, we are more than happy to try and provide resources that fit your needs. We offer several options for support for caregivers, as well as support groups. We have a number of resources listed on our website under the resources tab.
  • DBSA Chattanooga Pendulums holds peer support groups on Thursday evenings at 6 p.m. at Hixson United Methodist Church. There are virtual options as well.
  • The AIM Center has wonderful programming for those with mental health challenges and they are currently accepting referrals on a limited basis for those who do not have insurance.
  • The 988 hotline is a number that is available specifically for mental health emergencies and calls.
  • The Walk-in Center at Volunteer Behavioral is where individuals come voluntarily for assessment to determine if treatment might be necessary.
  • The Crisis Intervention Team is made up of Chattanooga police officers who have undergone a 40-hour training (including de-escalation skills they implement during mental health emergencies) that you can request to have on the scene from a 911 dispatcher.

Can you describe the importance of self-care and its benefits?

We are always told on airplanes to put on our masks first before trying to help someone with theirs. I think that the analogy holds true for self-care for caregivers and for those with mental health challenges. There are things that we cannot control in regard to our mental wellness, but there is also a lot that we can control.

As a caregiver, I have found that being around my NAMI Chattanooga friends has been the best way I can stay healthy. We volunteer, advocate, laugh, cry, and take walks together. We celebrate the successes and remind each other of those when things get tough. We are not an exclusive club either — we want people to be a part of it.

What local spots do you recommend for self-care?

I love going to Stringers Ridge, Greenway Farms, the RiverWalk, and Signal Mountain’s Rainbow Falls to go hiking. I’ve also participated in outdoor yoga with Outshine Adventures. I will go to Signal Centers’ Hart Gallery for painting, and seeing what others have done is a highlight.

I call visiting coffee places self-care, too. Three of my favorites are Be Caffeinated, Together Café, and Milk & Honey.

McKamey Animal Center is great, getting some four-legged love is really good medicine, too.

Who are some other local leaders in the greater mental health community?

We have a lot of great minds in this area and a lot of people with great hearts and passions who want to make things better. I think that it’s going to take a lot of input from those leaders, plus those with lived experience, to really turn things around in the mental health arena.

  • Officer Brandon Watson of CPS and the many other Crisis Intervention Team members and trainers have advocated training for police officers in de-escalation techniques for justice-involved mental health emergencies.
  • Nicole Bates of the Mental Health Cooperative is willing to ask hard questions and accept feedback in the interest of making the system better.
  • Jim Lewis is a pastor at Hixson United Methodist Church who has worked tirelessly to help people understand mental illness and to improve the lives of those impacted by it. His church has allowed both NAMI Chattanooga + DBSA space for support groups and has hosted educational series from other providers.
  • Anna Protano-Biggs is the CEO of AIM Centers and has been working to broaden the criteria for membership at the clubhouse so others with mental illness might be able to benefit from access to their programs and services. She has also played an integral role in finding more housing for those with mental illness.

What are some local mental health initiatives that you’re excited about?

The Crisis Intervention Team program has drawn together stakeholders from across the city and county to be part of marking our system better. I am particularly heartened by the fact that we as consumers of the services have been a part of the meetings + that our input is heard there.

Volunteer Behavioral Health is working on building an observation area with a living room-feel to it. For someone who is in crisis, waiting in a setting that doesn’t amplify that intensity would be so helpful.

Also, the extra housing being provided by The AIM Center for those with mental illness is something that I am very excited about. We have had so many calls over the years from those looking for housing for their loved ones. Hopefully, this will help some of those in need.

What improvements do you hope to see in Chattanooga’s mental health community over the next five years?

I have a big wish list! I would love to see our city offer navigators for those impacted by mental illness. I would love for there to be a place that would help walk you through the process, regardless of whether you have insurance or not.

I would also love to see Chattanooga develop a psychiatric emergency room like those found in other cities. We receive helpline calls from those who have spent three-four days in an ER before finally getting transferred to a behavioral health hospital or discharged. To me, being in a place more aligned with your needs as a patient would enable less trauma and be a quicker path to getting the treatment needed.

Finally, I think Chattanooga has made strides in reducing the stigma of mental illness, but I hope that we will continue to see this trend increase. Creating educational opportunities for all communities + meeting people where they are will go a long way toward continued progress.

Protect, celebrate, and enjoy your mental wellness. Give a lot of grace to yourself and to others who are not in that same space, but would dearly love to be.

What do you think Chattanooga will be known for in 10 years?

I grew up in Chattanooga and am 55 years old. I love the ways that this city has evolved — the outdoor spaces and the food scene are pretty special here, and thank you EPB for our internet speed. My life is really pretty great, but it would be so much better if I knew that we were doing more to care for individuals with mental illness and their families.

So I’m hoping in 10 years, Chattanooga becomes known as a city that took on the challenges of the messy, complex mental health system and made it navigable and more compassionate for those individuals and families forced into it. And that psychiatric emergency room… just saying.

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