Roughly 22 percent of American kids will face a severe mental health issue. But getting support and treatment for the under-18 set and their families in Michigan—and Up North, in particular—is not only limited but also infinitely complicated. What’s an overwhelmed parent to do? Lean on the Grand Traverse affiliate of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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Before Jessica Perez became a NAMI navigator, she urgently needed one.

Her daughter Ava—normally an active, outgoing 12-year-old with a busy school, sports and social calendar—had become increasingly withdrawn during the pandemic.

No longer able to attend school in person, play on the three sports teams she loved or build and brainstorm alongside her robotics team, Ava went from feeling hopeful for a return to normal life to feeling hopeless. She became anxious. What initially seemed like sadness about the situation began showing itself through worsening signs of anxiety and depression.

“In our family, we treat mental health issues as we do a broken bone or other serious medical condition, so we took her to the emergency room at Munson [Medical Center in Traverse City],” Perez explains.

The clinicians recommended Ava get treatment in a residential/inpatient program, but Munson couldn’t admit her. Nor could any other facility in the area. Northern Lower Michigan has only 32 inpatient mental health beds—not nearly enough supply for demand—and not one accepts kids under 18.

With nowhere to go but unable to leave while awaiting transfer, Ava and her parents stayed in a small windowless room in the emergency department, hoping a youth inpatient bed would open up somewhere, anywhere, in Michigan. Five nights later, one finally did at Pine Rest in Grand Rapids, three hours south.

Ava’s experience isn’t uncommon, says Kate Dahlstrom, a longtime mental health advocate based in Traverse City and NAMI board member.

Watering can pouring water onto growing flowers

In terms of mental health care in Northern Michigan, she says, “We lack everything. We’ve seen adults and kids stuck in the emergency department for weeks or sometimes a month.”

The region isn’t alone, of course. For kids and adults across the nation, there’s a huge chasm between the need for and availability of mental health services, not only for inpatient psych beds and crisis stabilization units but also basic community clinics, intensive outpatient programs, respite services and therapy.

Although Michigan isn’t the worst, this year Mental Health America named Michigan among the nation’s lowest-ranked states in terms of access to care for both kids and adults.

Yet even Perez, who has 20 years of experience navigating state and local social services thanks to a degree and career in social work, was unprepared for the difficulties her family would face in getting local crisis care and follow-up support for Ava. “We as a family are well-versed in mental health,” she says. “But we were still surprised with the lack of resources here in Grand Traverse County and [the surrounding region].”

As with residential crisis and inpatient programs, there are a few partial hospitalization/outpatient programs and mental health services available in Northern Lower Michigan but, again, limitations abound: Some are for adults only. Other services, like most offered through Northern Lakes Community Mental Health—just one of five member Community Mental Health Services Programs covering 21 counties in Northern Lower Michigan—are accessible only to those with Medicaid. Others can be prohibitively expensive, even for folks with insurance.

Coverage, cost or age of the patient notwithstanding, long waiting lists for programs, services and psychiatrists—the only kind of mental health specialist able to prescribe medication, often critical in managing certain conditions and behaviors—are the norm, Dahlstrom says.

While Ava’s parents were ultimately able to get their daughter the help she needed at the time of her crisis and afterward, Perez acknowledges, “That’s not the case for all families.”

In hopes of helping others navigate their own mental health and treatment odyssey, Ava and Perez shared their experience with a local paper. Many Northerners struggling with their or their children’s mental illnesses began reaching out to Perez for advice, guidance or simply to share their story, too.

Not long after, Perez joined NAMI Grand Traverse to guide families in an official capacity: as a NAMI navigator.

Founded around a kitchen table by a group of Colorado moms struggling to find help for their kids in 1979, NAMI is a nationwide organization with affiliates in every state and 1,100-plus local communities across the country. Its mission: to improve the lives of both kids and adults, as well as their families, who are living with mental illness—through support, education and advocacy.

Except for one affiliate in the Upper Peninsula, NAMI Alger/Marquette, NAMI Grand Traverse is the only NAMI affiliate north of Midland. As NAMI Grand Traverse’s sole navigator, Perez works by phone and in person to help people find the right mental health care for themselves or someone they love—during a crisis, in conjunction with treatment and afterward.

“I listen and provide empathy and direction,” she says, from guiding people to next steps when a mentally ill family member has been arrested to connecting them to resources like treat- ment programs, support groups or therapists.

She also strives to help people develop what she calls “their mental health toolkit.”

“You can’t be at therapy every day, so what can you do in the meantime? I help people think outside of the box so that they can find something to do each day to support their mental wellness,” Perez says.

To that end, NAMI offers some services of its own—all free:

• For people living with mental illness, there’s NAMI Connection, a weekly Zoom meeting where attendees can talk openly about their struggles and receive respect, understanding, encouragement and hope. It’s led by a trained individual who is in recovery. Note: NAMI Connection is intended in conjunction with treatment, not as an alternative.

• For adult family members, caregivers and others who love someone living with mental illness, NAMI’s Family Support Group offers a structured way to gain insight from the challenges and successes of others facing similar circumstances. It’s led by a trained peer support specialist who also has a family member living with a mental illness.

• For family caregivers of individuals with severe mental ill- nesses, NAMI offers a Family-to-Family Education Program, a free, 12-week course (and national program) taught by trained family members. It covers the latest research, evidence-based treatments and medication for major disorders like schizophre- nia, major depression, bipolar disorder and more. It also offers strategies for communication techniques, handling crises and relapse, and—especially important—helping the caregiver cope with worry, stress and emotional overload.

A Better Tomorrow

Although Northwest Lower Michigan has a long way to go in meeting the outsized demand for mental health care, NAMI and others are giving families and people living with mental illness more reasons for hope.

Recently, NAMI Grand Traverse started working with local high school students to help them better understand their own and others’ mental health: recognizing warning signs of struggle or suicide, identifying triggers, learning coping skills, how to seek help, and reducing the stigma of mental illness—a key tenet of NAMI’s education efforts.

McLaren Hospital in Cheboygan has broken ground on an 18-bed behavioral health unit for adults, but a planned second phase would add 12 beds, expand its partial hospitalization program and include a crisis stabilization unit.

In Grand Traverse County, NAMI and other partners’ advocacy efforts have resulted in $5 million in ARPA funds earmarked for “mental health infrastructure.” While details are still unfolding, a crisis wellness center, projected to offer several levels of mental health services for adults, adolescents and their families, is in the works. In addition to that future center, a “Crisis Welcome Center” already exists in TC, offered by Northern Lakes Community Mental Health. The center has group sessions, support and crisis interventions seven days a week. It’s open to anyone, regardless of age or coverage.

Lynda Wheatley is an award-winning writer specializing in stories that showcase Michigan travel and recreation, history, and the passionate folks who make this place so extraordinary.