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YWCA Continues Work Started Long Ago

YWCA continues work started long ago

By Patti Jo Severson

The definition of activist is “vigorous advocate.”

When I Googled women activists, I found that I was in good company. The female activists who have come before us, women who made it possible for us, were most often named for social and political justice, all activists for change.

This advocacy is reflected in the Mission of the YWCA: To empower women, eliminate racism, and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.

It is similar to that of a much younger organization, one near and dear to my heart, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Founded in 1978 in Madison, NAMI has more than 1,100 affiliates across the United States, and is the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness.

While the founding women of the YWCA have long departed, many of the founding mothers of NAMI are still living, still fighting to eliminate stigma and improve quality of life.

The YWCA motto —“Strong alone. Fearless together” —  describes the collective strength of these women. Mothers who sat at kitchen tables in the 1970s in La Crosse and Madison, likely over coffee and a Betty Crocker bundt cake, who began to outline what had to change to improve the lives of their children.

Often stigmatized by the very institutions designed to help their children living with mental illness, these women were often called “Schizophrenogenic Mothers,” blamed for their children’s condition.

Treatment often involved removing the afflicted child to an institution away from the mother who inflicted her schizophrenogenic powers.

We now know that mental illnesses are most often brain disorders, much like diabetes, with a genetic component, exacerbated by environmental stress and must be treated with the same compassion and dignity as any other medical condition.

What continues to give NAMI its strength today is its collective energy, mothers and families strong alone, but fearless together.

Like the YWCA, NAMI provides educational programs. Our newest program, NAMI Parents and Teachers as Allies (PTasA), provides a two-hour in-service to teachers about the early signs and symptoms of mental illness. I am proud to be a part of these amazing programs offered in La Crosse.

Last spring, I received a phone call from a woman saying she wanted to talk with me about the educational programs that we offer at NAMI. She said she had memorial funds and wanted to make a donation. So Nancy Pfiester and I met, over coffee, and I listened. Her son Brad had taken his life earlier this year.

She had many questions, but most of all, she wanted to take action so that perhaps another mother would not have to live through what she was living. And perhaps another young man would live a life her son would not.

So Nancy chose the PTasA Program; she decided that perhaps a teacher in a classroom might be able to identify another mother’s child and just maybe that child would get the help and support he or she needed just a little earlier in life, perhaps a distraught mother would be understood a little better, and another young adult would survive.

This is why we do the work we do in NAMI.

There is much work to be done, many more problems to be solved, and we can be part of the solution, and, yes, sometimes over coffee and a Betty Crocker bundt cake.

Patti Jo Severson was one of 11 women honored recently during the 28th annual YWCA Tribute to Outstanding Women.  Severson, who was honored for activism, is vice president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Wisconsin and co-chairwoman of the Mental Health Coalition of Greater La Crosse. This was an excerpt of her acceptance speech during the YWCA Tribute to Outstanding Women.

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